Word count: 272 words
Reading time: Just over 1 minute
The best way to improve your writing skills is to emulate the work of others. For this reason I regularly write down sentences I’ve picked up in my own recent reading. Today’s comes from Julie Otsuka.
This summer I read the novel The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. Although I’m very interested in stories about Japan — my aunt lived in Japan for 25 years, starting in the 1960s — I didn’t really enjoy the book. I found the narrative, told mostly in the second person plural, to be distancing and a bit boring. Others, however, have described the writing as prose “poetry.” I wouldn’t have agreed, until I read the following sentence:
One calm, windless morning when the sea was as flat as glass and the sky a brilliant shade of blue, the smooth black flank of a whale suddenly rose up out of the water and then disappeared and for a moment we forgot to breathe.
It interests me that the words are so simple, so familiar. Calling the sea “as flat as glass” is practically a cliche! “Brilliant shade of blue” seems vague and imprecise. But the sentence grabbed me with the juxtaposition of “smooth black flank,” which is almost shocking. And I like the way “suddenly rose up” practically turns the sentence on his head. Yes, it surprised me; I hadn’t expected a whale to appear!
I also like the way forgetting to breathe is presented as an unremarkable fact. Of course human beings need to breathe — we do it whether we are thinking about it or not. But I found the hyperbole captivating.