My First Lesson in Writing from Reading Madame Bovary
It was the lustful longings of Emma Bovary, her desire for adulation, passion, and a man with the potential to get her away from her dull country life with daddy, it was her calculated gesture to obtain what she sought. Yes, Emma Bovary taught me what I’ve come to call the sacrament of good descriptive writing: it must provide an outward and visible sign of an inner emotional, spiritual, or psychological state. I was not your average college student when I learned this. I had written and read like a starved thing since I could remember. I didn’t have a notion of being a writer or a professor. I had never even heard of graduate school. The closest thing I’d ever had to a writing workshop was freshman composition. I went to college only because in those days the grants were free and my boyfriend was in college and he said that I would have to be equally educated if we were to have a future. And so dear reader, I went to college, and received my first lesson in creative writing from Emma Bovary. Well, it was, to be clear, Monsieur Flaubert—the man himself had declared: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”
I had written stories for my own pleasure since the third grade, but in a class on World Literature I had the opportunity to learn from the masters such as Chekhov and Flaubert. But the single most “aha” moment of understanding how writing works was when I read the little scene where the country gal full of big romantic passions calculates a stunning move to win the attentions of the well-intentioned buffoon Charles. With her bare shoulders “beaded with little drops of sweat,” she offered him “country-style” something to drink:
She brought a bottle of Curacao from the cupboard, reached to a high shelf for two liqueur glasses, filled one to the brim and poured a few drops in the other. She touched her glass to his and raised it to her mouth. Because it was almost empty she had to bend backwards to be able to drink; and with her head tilted back, her neck and lips outstretched, she began to laugh at tasting nothing; and then the tip of her tongue came out from between her small teeth and began daintily to lick the bottom of the glass.
In spite of the fact that Emma is performing the little drama for herself as much as for Charles, the man doesn’t have a chance in hell of resisting this.
When I came across this passage, I knew I’d come across a rather hot little scene, but more than that. I felt the thing like grace when we slip out of ourselves as readers and into the fiction where we can feel, smell, see, taste the very concrete goings-on there. As a writer, Flaubert slipped into the very feminine wily ways of a woman politely yet ruthlessly having her way with the unspoken passions of a man. Aha, I thought, that’s what writing is. It’s all in the details. It’s all in the getting inside the skin, not just the mind of a character. We have to lose ourselves as we inhabit the senses and the motives of someone we’ve just invented. Or maybe, they inhabit us. I knew right then what was lacking in my own stories. I was basically reporting stuff. I might have been making it up, but it was buffered somehow, told, in spite of the concrete details, in a general way. Flaubert puts us in that warm little room with Emma and Charles. He doesn’t report her plan to look seductive. He simply leaps and takes us there and somehow we simultaneously hear the little laugh, see that little pink tongue flickering in the glass; we feel her pleasure in her concocted drama, and without a word said, we feel Charles’ captivation. Hell, we are sitting there, mesmerized, just as he is.
After that scene, I devoured the novel, ready to not only write differently, but to read differently. I started paying close attention to not only what Flaubert was doing, but how he was doing it. To write good evocative, descriptive writing, we must be willing to leave our own seats and senses and dive into those creatures of our creation. They have lots to tell and show us. We just have to silence our own selves, feel what they are feeling, listen and watch to see just what on earth they’ll do next.
This was my first lesson in how fiction works, how what John Gardner called "the fictive dream" takes over not only the characters and the readers, but the writer as well. The sacrament of good descriptive writing is certainly at work here. No one needs to guess at the inner state of both these characters when the little laugh is followed by the tilted back, the arched neck, the reaching lips, the flickering tongues, and oh the sweetness, the little sweetness, she--and we--find in the bottom of that tiny glass.