Last week someone posed an interesting question: “What makes writing good?” The more I tried to answer, the more it felt like trying to describe the color yellow or explain infinity.
When you stumble across a piece of good writing, you just get it. You feel it before you know it. You’re compelled to save it, savor it, share it.
A good writer fades into the background of their own story. They don’t just tell you about a place, they transport you there. Good writers don’t just describe characters, they introduce you to strangers who ultimately become friends. Good writing makes you feel as though you have been somewhere, met someone and done something new. When you close the book, you walk away with a feeling that you better understand the world around you.
I’ll soon be heading to New Orleans for my first NOLA experience. While reading through some literary tidbits about New Orleans, I came across this brilliant piece written by journalist Chris Rose.
I suppose we should introduce ourselves. We’re South Louisiana.
We have arrived on your doorstep on short notice and we apologize for that, but we never were much for waiting around for invitations. We’re not much on formalities like that.
And we might be staying around your town for a while, enrolling in your schools and looking for jobs, so we wanted to tell you a few things about us. We know you didn’t ask for this and neither did we, so we’re just going to have to make the best of it.
First of all, we thank you. For your money, your water, your food, your prayers, your boats and buses and the men and women of your National Guards, fire departments, hospitals and everyone else who has come to our rescue. We’re a fiercely proud and independent people, and we don’t cotton much to outside interference, but we’re not ashamed to accept help when we need it. And right now, we need it. Just don’t get carried away. For instance, once we get around to fishing again, don’t try to tell us what kind of lures work best in your waters. We’re not going to listen. We’re stubborn that way.
You probably already know that we talk funny and listen to strange music and eat things you’d probably hire an exterminator to get out of your yard. We dance even if there’s no radio. We drink at funerals. We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large and, frankly, we’re suspicious of others who don’t. But we’ll try not to judge you while we’re in your town. Everybody loves their home, we know that. But we love South Louisiana with a ferocity that borders on the pathological. Sometimes we bury our dead in LSU sweatshirts.
Often we don’t make sense. You may wonder why, for instance – if we could only carry one small bag of belongings with us on our journey to your state – why in God’s name did we bring a pair of shrimp boots? We can’t really explain that. It is what it is.
You’ve probably heard that many of us stayed behind. As bad as it is, many of us cannot fathom a life outside of our border, out in that place we call Elsewhere. The only way you could understand that is if you have been there, and so many of you have. So you realize that when you strip away all the craziness and bars and parades and music and architecture and all that hooey, really, the best thing about where we come from is us. We are what made this place a national treasure. We’re good people. And don’t be afraid to ask us how to pronounce our names. It happens all the time.
When you meet us now and you look into our eyes, you will see the saddest story ever told. Our hearts are broken into a thousand pieces. But don’t pity us. We’re gonna make it. We’re resilient. After all, we’ve been rooting for the Saints for 35 years. That’s got to count for something. OK, maybe something else you should know is that we make jokes at inappropriate times. But what the hell.
And one more thing: In our part of the country, we’re used to having visitors. It’s our way of life. So when all this is over and we move back home, we will repay to you the hospitality and generosity of spirit you offer to us in this season of our despair. That is our promise. That is our faith.
How do you define good writing? What work has recently inspired you?