What is beauty?
The Irish poet John O’Donohue said:
“Beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.”
I like that. I can feel the presence of beauty when sun rays peek through the trees. I can hear the beauty in the raw voice of 71-year old Johnny Cash singing We’ll meet again. I can witness beauty in an unexpected gesture of kindness.
In such moments, I feel fully present, and I feel alive.
Beauty is not a luxury.
It’s an essence of life. A moment of wonder. Yo-Yo Ma calls it the moment a transfer of life takes place.
And beautiful writing?
I used to think that beautiful writing was just about a poetic writing style.
Beautiful writing is vivid, concise, and rhythmic. Each word is chosen with care.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize there’s more to beautiful writing than style.
Beautiful writing is alive. It’s human. It has depth—there’s thought and meaning behind it. As a reader you feel connected to the writer, you sense their presence. And yes, there’s that transfer of life.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you might know I’m a fan of Apple’s copy. I’ve called Apple’s copywriters the poets of the marketing world.
But is their copy beautiful?
It’s certainly compelling. It has rhythm. There’s rhyme and a playfulness with words.
But of course, it’s only marketing; and there’s a superficiality to it. You don’t feel the real presence of the person who wrote it.
So, that’s not quite what I mean with beautiful writing.
This is beautiful …
I recently read The Light of the World, a memoir by Elizabeth Alexander.
I read it in October and then again a couple of weeks ago. It’s rare that I read a book twice.
Alexander loses her husband due to a cardiac arrest shortly after his 50th birthday. But more than a story of loss, her book is a story of love, and how love sustains us and provides solace. As Alexander suggests in her opening sentence:
The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story.
Her writing touched me more than anything else I’ve read this year.
There’s an art to vivid writing
Writing vividly is not about picking as many details as possible to describe a scene.
It’s about picking the most fascinating or the most characteristic details that can help convey your ideas.
For instance, here’s how Alexander describes Ficre—her husband:
His teeth were straight, white, and bright without benefit of American orthodonture. In photographs he disdained “cheesing” and set his lips firmly closed, but his smile was quick and shone full sunshine. He shaved his head on account of his receding hairline, and surely no one ever looked more beautiful bald—brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey (“Did you know that buckwheat is neither grass nor wheat and is closely related to rhubarb?” I can hear him say).
I love that note in parentheses. A small detail that says so much.
Ficre was an artist and a chef. He ran a restaurant together with his brother, and this is what Alexander writes about his cooking:
Ficre created legendary dishes such as shrimp barka that existed nowhere in Eritrea but rather in his own inventive imagination. Women called for it from St. Raphael’s and Yale-New Haven Hospitals after they’d delivered their babies; people said they literally dreamed of it, a fairy food that tasted like nothing else.
The more I read, the more I realize how good writers pay attention. First, to what happens inside them and around them—what they hear, see, feel, taste, and smell. Next, they pay attention to how to express that in words:
Ficre, you would love this macchiato: perfectly smooth, strong but not sharp, fortissimo but shy of bitter, with a sexy plouf of milk foam dead center in the tiny white cup.
I’m not a coffee drinker. I’ve never had a macchiato in my life. But reading that, it feels like I can almost taste that cup of macchiato. I certainly smell the coffee, and I can feel the milk foam against my upper lip.
The writing gets even better when it’s about love …
How can you describe love?
I once read that you can’t describe love with words. It’s always cliched. I am hopeless about keeping track of quotes and can’t find the source anymore.
But whoever said it, is wrong.
Alexander shows us how to describe love without resorting to cliches. She describes meeting her husband for the first time:
That was always a good story: an actual coup de foudre, a bolt of lightning, love at first sight. I felt a visceral torque, I would tell people, a literal churn of my organs: not butterflies, not arousal; rather, a not-unpleasant rotation of my innards, as never before.
There’s so much tenderness in the writing:
He had a scar on his hip from a dog bite in his childhood. Our first night together I kissed it and he breathed the most profound sigh and asked how did I know exactly where he wanted to be touched, that no one had ever touched him there. Our romance was like that, healing every old wound with magic disappearing powers until they were all tended.
And after his death:
As I make the pasta I remember Ficre in our kitchen teaching me how to more adeptly use a knife, to preheat a pan, to press garlic cloves so the paper jackets slip off, to simmer tomatoes until they turn sweet and roast beets until they are like candy. The boys and I eat our delicious spaghetti until sated. Our whole bodies are warm. Ficre is in our stomachs.
I love that: Our whole bodies are warm. Ficre is in our stomachs.
I can’t do Alexander’s writing justice with just a few short quotes. I feel touched by her writing, the vivid imagery, the tenderness, the loss, the love woven through her words.
Love and loss connect us all
And writing this post made me wonder …
I know most of us write for business but let’s forget about AI and upping our productivity for a moment.
What if we all put a little more humanness into our writing?
And dare I say it: What if we all put a little more love into our writing?
In our anxious world, could our writing build some bridges? Could our collective writing be a force for good?
Maybe I’m a hopeless idealist, but I’d like to think so. There can be so much power in writing. A spark. A sense of connection.
That magical transfer of life.