On “On Beauty”

By Sarah Marshall

In my notes on Stacey D’Erasmo’s lecture at this year’s GrubStreet Muse and the Marketplace conference, I not only scrawled the various quotes she included from authors as diverse as Elaine Scarry and Anton Chekhov, but attempted a kind of visual shorthand, one that would remind me of the talk’s essence, and help me to carry its lessons with me long after I left Boston. At the top of my notebook, I drew a precarious stack of cubes, and beneath them a shallow teaspoon. The perspective is wobbly, but the meaning is clear. In her talk, titled “On Beauty,” D’Erasmo told us that, as readers and writers, “We tend to treat beauty as if it were sugar, not water.” But beauty, she argued, is water—in life, and in any writing that can be as powerful, as enduring, and as concussively revelatory as life itself.

Any first-time workshop student will agree that the purpose of great fiction—which D’Erasmo’s talk centered upon—is to wrest the reader out of her own narrow consciousness, and allow her to see the world differently. Yet all too often workshops treat beautiful writing, or even writing that allows the reader to access the beauty of the objects or situations it describes, as unnecessary at best, and, at worst, as a distraction from inferior craft. “In workshops,” D’Erasmo said, “we never ask for more beauty.” But, she argued, we should.

Perhaps she could have also said, “In life.” Quietly absorbing her lecture, I contented myself with scribbling the quote in my notebook, and adding, in my own cramped handwriting: YES.

Ironically enough, writing might be the single hardest activity to undertake at a writing conference. Trying to write back in my hotel room each night, I felt a little like someone who had spent they day at a grand feast, and then, stuffed to the gills and still salivating over remembered delicacies, staggered home and tried to eke out dinner on a hot plate. It would take days, I knew, for me to sleep off the jet lag and the creative gorging I had incurred in Boston, and to return to my own writing. And so, after D’Erasmo’s lecture, I took myself for a walk in the Public Garden.

It was the shank of the evening, and crowds of people were gathered, each of them drawn there, perhaps, by a different kind of beauty: a desire to see a Boston landmark, or the huge statue of George Washington, or to take ride in a swan boat, or to view the just-opening mouths of the tulips. But it was all there for us, whether we had come for it or not. Real swans drifted along beside the boats, seemingly uninterested in their cartoonish and gargantuan copies. One bobbed down into the water—into a world I couldn’t see—and left me with the sight of its white tail feathers, peaked and inviolate as a tulip blossom, unfamiliar as its other half was recognizable. I watched, my command of more beauty fulfilled, and I knew this water would find its way into my writing for as long as I remembered to drink it in.

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About the Author

A 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient, Sarah Marshall grew up in rural Oregon and earned an MFA in fiction and an MA in English at Portland State University, where she currently teaches writing. She has also widely published her poetry and short fiction, most recently in The Collagist, Hobart, Harpur Palate, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, and in 2013 was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her essays and other nonfiction have most recently appeared in The Believer, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The New Republic.

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