flower childrenHere’s a pet peeve I have about books: when bland, sparse writing is misinterpreted by reviewers as “lucid and touching” or “stunning and wistful.” I think simple, bare-bones writing can be absolutely beautiful and moving – let’s think about Annie Dillard or Ernest Hemingway – but I also think that minimalism is an easy trick some writers use to make us think that they’ve put a lot of work into something. Sure, Annie Dillard tends to write thin, spare books, but she puts love into each and every sentence and you can feel that. There’s a lot of work hidden backstage. It kills me to read it, every word is so carefully and well chosen.

It also killed my to read Flower Children by Maxine Swann, but in the bad way. The novel – which is a series of connected short stories about four children growing up with hippie parents – has the appearance of being one of those sparsely beautiful books that read like long poems (which is why I checked it out of the library). It is small and short with big print and lots of white space. But. The writing just isn’t there. Here’s an excerpt, describing the school one of the girls attended:

“Our school was a low brick building with a flag out front and a playground behind. In the halls there was a yellowish light. From the classroom, you could look out and see the cars in the parking lot or a wavering patch of grass… The dining hall was furnished with linoleum tables with similar benches attached. We had hot meals on trays with depressed surfaces in them, each to hold a portion of something. The women who worked in the dining hall wore nets over their hair.”

Yes, the language and sentence structures are simple and clean. But it isn’t saying anything interesting. In fact, it’s about the most bland, generic description of a school I can think of. It doesn’t read like “touching prose,” it reads like she wrote the first thing she thought of. Now imagine two hundred pages of that. None of it made me feel anything – the book failed the gut-check.

But something good did come out of my reading the book. I read the above paragraph outloud to Ben, to make sure I wasn’t too crazy or damning in my assessment. When I finished reading it to him, he got up and told me to go with him. He got out our laptops and said, “Let’s rewrite this page sentence by sentence and see what we can do.”

What followed was an awesome impromptu writing exercise. Not only did we wedge some extra fiction writing into our day, but we also felt like we weren’t just passively criticizing the bad stuff we read, we were working on analysis and improving our own toolboxes. The next day, Ben emailed me a second excerpt to rewrite and re-imagine from a flawed short story he had read. Tomorrow, I’ll email him one.

Just like that, we have a new daily writing ritual.