The Craft of Writing: An Example

For almost as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve heard a nearly1 consistent piece of writing advice: Avoid the tired cliché of having the character look into a mirror so you, the writer, have an excuse to describe the character to the reader.

It just isn’t to be done.

Unless, of course . . . you happen to know how to do it right. I have just read a passage that impressed me as a way to do it right. The following is an excerpt from the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I’m reading the Kindle version of the English translation (from Russian, if that’s not clear) by Clarence Brown. I quote this for review purposes and do not intend to infringe on anyone’s anything.

I’m in front of a mirror. And for the first time in my life, I swear it, for the very first time in my life, I get a clear, distinct, conscious look at myself; I see myself and I’m astonished, like I’m looking at some “him.” There I am—or rather, there he is: He’s got straight black eyebrows, drawn with a ruler, and between them, like a scar, is a vertical crease (I don’t know if it was there before). Gray, steel eyes, with the circle of a sleepless night around them; and behind that steel—it turns out I never knew what was there. And from that “there” (a “there” that is here and at the same time infinitely far away)—I am looking at myself, at him, and I am absolutely certain that he, with his ruler-straight eyebrows, is a stranger, somebody else, I just met him for the first time in my life. And I’m the real one. I AM NOT HIM.

Isn’t that wonderful? Of course, it’s immediately obvious that, aside from the eyebrows, eyes, and the dark circles around his eyes, he doesn’t actually describe himself. We have no idea if he’s blond or brunette or has a pimple on his nose or if his earlobes are attached or detached. But I think that’s the whole point. This looking-into-the-mirror scene isn’t about describing the character, but having the character discover something unnerving about himself. That we learn a few details of his appearance is basically a side-effect of the real purpose of the paragraph.

It’s one of my favorite passages from this book, so far, and there have already been quite a few. (I’m 32% done with it.)

  1. A couple of years ago, I took a writing workshop from a local (to Atlanta, GA) author. He actually—against all advice I’ve heard to the contrary—recommended the technique. I considered said advice with a large grain of salt, mind you, but hey. :)

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