Not long ago, I read Ann Patchett’s extraordinary collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The book blew me away because Patchett’s stories seemed so, well, unassuming. How is she doing this? I wondered. How is she able to keep my attention on such seemingly simple topics as her grandmother and owning a dog?
Unlike showier writers whose prose stops me mid-sentence (Mary Karr) or has me running for the dictionary (Michael Chabon), Patchett’s writing doesn’t call attention to itself. Instead, it humbly serves the story at hand, which makes her ability to keep me riveted that much more remarkable What was she doing to keep me on the page?
Pondering this, I recalled something Roy Peter Clark, a mentor in my MFA program, once talked about: gold coins. That was it! Patchett was lining her prose with an abundance of gold coins.
So what the heck are gold coins?
Imagine you are walking along a forest path and see a gold coin shining on the trail ahead of you. Excited, you reach down to pick it up and move forward quickly in search of more. Sure enough, a few feet later there’s another gold coin, and then another, and another, and you keep moving forward until the gold runs out.
In writing, gold coins work the same way. Gold coins are the craft techniques that entice readers to keep reading and then reward them for doing so. Humor is a gold coin. So is an amazing fact, a startling insight, a beautiful metaphor, fresh turns of phrase, and intriguing characters.
Patchett did such a great job keeping my attention because she used gold coins in every paragraph, which, now that I think about it, is something all writers should strive for. After all, our primary task is to keep the reader reading.
Here are a few gold-coin examples from Patchett’s essay, “The Getaway Car,” (which I consider required reading for every writer):
Intriguing character description: “Oh, Grace, with her raveling sweaters and thick socks, her gray hair flying in every direction, the dulcet tones of Brooklyn in her voice, she was a masterpiece of human life. There was the time she came to class and said she couldn’t return our stories because she had been robbed the night before. A burglar had broken into her apartment and tied her to the kitchen chair. She then proceeded to talk to him about his hard life … in the end, he took her camera and her bag full of our homework.”
Memorable imagery: “I finished my novel at the beginning of April 1991. I printed it out and then I stood on the pages. There were about four hundred of them, and I felt considerably taller.”
Fresh analogy: “As much as I love what I do, I forever feel like a dog on the wrong side of the door. If I’m writing a book, I’m racing to be finished; if I’m finished, I feel aimless and wish that I were writing a book.”
Self-deprecating honesty: “Even though I had spent the last year living with the novel in my head, I had not committed one word to paper. That was the moment I remembered that I had never written a novel and had no idea what I was doing.”
Direct reader address combined with fresh analogy (she’s speaking to writers here): “Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.”
I agree with Patchett: writing is both miserable and better than anything in the world. And lucky for us, we all have a bottomless satchel of gold coins at our disposable. So don’t be stingy. Use your coins.