Mmph ~ Language, Charles Baxter, Serena Bell

I’m convinced that there is a wordless place inside of us that receives story.

In my imagination, it’s like an atrium, but more sentient and responsive. Maybe something like a heart’s atrium, which also receives what is vital and live.

I first had this thought, years ago, going to poetry and fiction readings. I’ve been to all kinds—commercial events held in bookstores, important ones with authors in the audience that rivaled the fame of the one at the podium, academic affairs filled with students who had to get a mandatory attendance form signed after, and then the dozens and dozens in homes and coffeeshops and bars and basements and the ones that were deliberately weird happenings where poetry was shouted in deliberately weird and uncomfortable places like abandoned malls or busy diners.

I had the thought that there wasn’t anything to say when we were in receipt of a story—reading or listening, that there was something else going on, seated in the body, and this is so obvious at a reading, in some room filled with humans, because we all act like the animals that we are.

I’m talking about the mmph.

It’s the same–if it’s Toni Morrison ending a passage where we’ve just come to know that Beloved is not who we might have thought she was, or if it’s some rough-eyed poetry undergraduate who found the turn we needed to hear in her otherwise uncomfortably unrevised epic poem. Together, we listeners vocalize in response, somewhere in our throats and above our hearts, and it is involuntary.

I will come back to this.

Few writers write all alone, or at least, the entire process isn’t borne alone. How much you work with another is some kind of continuum from many partners or a writing group looking at nearly everything you write along the way, to, I suppose, the writer who writes in an unheated shack in the wilderness and sends her manuscript to the publisher by carrier pigeon, and even she isn’t alone because she sent it, and there are readers.

Also, this process isn’t the same for every book even, sometimes you need the voices and signposts, and sometimes you need your shack.

Also, yes, engagement means influences, too, which is exactly right. Writers inside the same generation, writing with similar concerns, should influence each other. This has always been true, this has always created discovery for readers, both at the time and into the future. There are movements, there are salons, there are leading edges. As static as a book might be, the process hardly ever is, and really, whatever is published is simply where that process had to necessarily stop due to external demands for the manuscript.

What Serena Bell said about me, in regards to her process, in the acknowledgement of Yours to Keep was that I  provided “advice and reassurance at a key moment when my morale was flagging and panic was setting in.”

What I remember is this—we were relatively new to the other, and like a lot of writerly relationships much of our relationship was made from words—emails—but we’d breached that and spoke on the phone and there was that kindred understanding that our concerns for books were similar.

I read Yours to Keep for her. Right away, from the beginning, here:

At some point, she’d let her shoulders drop from their usual spot around her ears and started to believe that maybe, just maybe, nothing too terrible would happen, as long as she kept her nose clean and didn’t break any rules.

She’d enjoyed living like a normal person. She’d lost that sense of peering around the next corner, anticipating the next challenge. And it had been a relief, like taking full breaths for the first time after wearing a too-tight dress.

Only now she thought it might not have been worth it, because the adrenaline of sudden danger packed such a vicious punch: nausea, trembling hands, tight throat. She spoke nearly flawless English, but authority figures could make her forget every word.

That is where the receptive atrium in my mind vocalized something inarticulate–mmph. It’s a passage that ignited that organic understanding that this was good, and necessarily meant I flagged it, because now, I would have to talk to Serena about it, and really, this is impossible.

I mean, I can. I can look at it again and show you that in every one of those paragraphs, this character is drawn from the animal’s reactions of her body. She wants her shoulders to come down from around her ears, her nose to stay clean, to stop peering around corners, to find relief in a deep unbinding breath (and what’s more, we learn she’s no stranger to tight dresses), and that she’s often perfused with adrenaline that nauseates her and shakes her and closes off her throat so that her brain can’t even remember language.

This is everything we need to know, and it is presented efficiently and plainly, invisibly and effortlessly.

Whatever any of that means, which is of course, secondary to what I really meant, which was mmph.

It makes me think, as I recently told another writer I work with, Ruthie Knox, what would happen if I gave writers one of these very cerebral kinds of descriptors of language like effortless, or lush, or intense, or gorgeous, or layered, or breathless and I told them to write a 250 word exemplar.

I think her answer was something like, “ha! You should,” because of course, I should, because it is interesting and impossible and shines a light on what it is we’re trying to do here, and what’s more, what’s most exciting, is that I have no doubt that what the writers wrote would be exemplar and we would all go mmph in our throats and talk about it and also, come no closer to what breathless means, which incidentally, is what I evoked writing Serena’s blurb:

Serena Bell delivers a fully adult romance with authentic characters, genuine stakes, and the kind of sweet, hot yearning that turns pages and stops your breath.

Blurbs are extraordinarily difficult because they are this kind of strange intersection of what I really felt in some tiny handful of definitive words, but also, they should be words meant to both convey something about the book that will be meaningful to readers looking to read a book like the book you are blurbing. At least, for me, I want readers who are looking for a book like Yours to Keep to find it, is the thing, and I suppose what I think of my blurb is a kind of rusty and flapping sign on an otherwise unmarked county road meant to get the reader there.

Breathlessness, then, to me was something in the language, because you need your breath to speak. Also, sweetness and yearning, to me, meant where that language intersected with the characterization and the pacing:

Waiting until Friday had made some sense at five forty-five a.m. on Tuesday morning but was making less and less sense as the week passed. Thursday afternoon, Ethan decided that he’d get home early and drive her to work again. At least that way he could kiss her, and hold her, and–he admitted to himself, grope her and manhandle her and talk dirty to her.

Serena Bell anchors her use of language in very cleanly presented narrative. I think there are many ways for a text to stop your breath, but here, it is absolutely the seamlessness of a clean narrative where first, our narrator gives us a desperate accounting of his time, time tied to his heroine, and then, the litany of what it is his body needs. Look also, nestled in between, is his decision to go home early and drive her to work–again. Breathlessness, achieved with language, and sweetness, and of course, yearning and hotness.

I can explain it, you see, but really–mmph.

I read Serena Bell’s book and I kept thinking of the author and writing teacher Charles Baxter. Baxter has had a lot to say about language, which–defining what I mean when I talk about an author’s language–I restrict to how it is the author says or even sings the narrative. In Serena’s passage above, of a man obsessing about seeing his lover again, there are infinate approaches to the language. Serena restricts her language to what I’ve already called clean and would probably further define as naturalistic, without introducing spoken affect. It’s deceptive, however, in terms of skill. Achievement of clarity and naturalism within a deeper third person point of view, that reads effortlessly in that we don’t snag on the language for the sake of the language, is tremendously difficult, even as the reader merely receives it into that organic atrium of our minds. We simply feel it, feel his urgency, and let it ache, physically ache in our bodies.

Charles Baxter is where I was headed, and the reason is his generosity in considering the infinite number of approaches to this achievement. I have no doubt he would appreciate Serena’s fiction for its transparency and muscle, but none of this means that there’s aren’t other ways to sing. For example, in a question MaryAnne Kolton asked him about adverbs and adjectives, Baxter said:

“Thy turfy mountains here live nibbling sheep.” That’s Shakespeare, The Tempest. Philip Levine’s essay on his teacher John Berryman reminds us that it isn’t quantity in adjectives or adverbs that should bother us, but quality. Four words instead of one might be undesirable when you’re giving directions, but poetry and great fiction don’t depend on what is “sufficient.” They depend on what is eloquent and beautiful and true. Adjectives and adverbs give us gradations, qualities, shades of feeling. Language itself has its own glory, beyond the uses people put it to.

So Serena’s book makes me think of Baxter and his perspective on language because Serena’s work puts language to use. It is a study in how to use language to make us feel, even as her work taken on the page is objectively plain. Which is what I mean by skill, and also why it is difficult to discuss or cereberalize language, and why it is probably something that is natively located in the author herself. Also, its reception is likely natively located in the reader. What I find gorgeous for its decoration, may never be received by a different reader.

Serena believes that in some moment, reading and talking to her about her book, that I reassured her and offered her advice, when from my perspective, what I said was very much what I’ve said here, which is, I told her what it is I thought she was doing. Now, writing is not some magical fugue state, it is more a slog of dozens of decisions an hour, hour after hour, but it is also difficult, often, to articulate what you have done. I can point to a place where the narrative turns, where the language is tangled, where motivations are obscured, but until I have another, with similar concerns for what a book can do, simply tell me, my pointing isn’t effective.

Writers necessarily seek out, then, those with shared concerns and perpsectives on writing a book, because, well. You want to write your book, not the entire world’s book. In most cases, we ask other writers to just tell us what we’re doing already. What is this? hoping that what we are told is something close to what it is we were to be exploring and uncovering and writing.

We’re looking, too, to create that unnameable, wordless, animal experience in the reader–to make something that is both beautiful and true, where the language has intersected with our character and with narrative action in such a way that the only genuine response is from the throat of the reader, from the impulse of the reader to make a mark in the text, to read or to hear it again. Here, the heroine of Yours to Keep is walking through her neighborhood, working through her troubles:

She walked for a long time on the streets in her neighborhood. The kids were, for the most part, in school. Neighbors with jobs were at work or sleeping off their miserable third shifts, which left the streets in possession of out-of-work men. It had always been somewhat this way in Hawthorne, but it was worse in the last few months, with the recesssion. They were mostly older, grey creeping into their hair. They sat on their front stoops and porches; they loitered on the sidewalks in pairs. They watched her appreciatively as she passed, hooted and whistled sometimes. The ones that knew her called out her name.

Again, melancholy and obsession is achieved through the clarity of presented action. Look at the second half of the passage, imagining this character walking through her neighborhood–short sentances constructed in repeitition with “they” plus a simple past verb. A litany of langauge, then, reveals the litany of behavior and the unchanging nature of her life, how it’s trapped her. This is beautiful and true, and difficult to do, besides. To read this is a pleasure, to read it and have the opprotunity to discuss it with the author, and with the rest of the world, a privilege.


About Mary Ann Rivers

Mary Ann Rivers writes smart and emotional contemporary romance. Read more >
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7 Responses to Mmph ~ Language, Charles Baxter, Serena Bell

  1. Shari Slade says:


  2. Cate Ellink says:

    Some days I come here and am left brain-overfull, happy and speechless – today is another of those days.

    Thank you!
    Cate xo

  3. Alexis Hall says:

    mmmph indeed.

    serious mmmph.

    This sentence, for me, captures something absolutely fundamental about what reading means, and what what writing can be:

    “We’re looking, too, to create that unnameable, wordless, animal experience in the reader–to make something that is both beautiful and true, where the language has intersected with our character and with narrative action in such a way that the only genuine response is from the throat of the reader, from the impulse of the reader to make a mark in the text, to read or to hear it again.”

  4. Ruthie Knox says:

    I like this essay, and I agree about Serena’s prose being deceptively clean, in a way that makes you receive the story and often not notice how lovely the craft is.

    The idea of there being a place in us that receives story is beautiful, and the difficulty of talking about the kind of beauty that makes us go mmph, too, because my experience has been, as an academic, that the harder I try to talk about what makes me go mmph, the less I enjoy it. This is one reason why I don’t review, and why I rarely talk about a book that I’ve enjoyed at great length — when I try to make that ineffable mmph effable, I frequently lose the pleasure. Sometimes I gain other pleasures, but they aren’t necessarily compensatory. :-)

  5. One of my favorite things to teach is literature, but as an part-time professor I rarely get a chance. When I do, I often struggle with what to do when we’re in the classroom together. Talking about something transcendent cheapens it, in some ways. Inevitably, I end up with a few lessons in which I read passages aloud and say: yeah, that.

    I did this over the summer. I read sections of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” aloud to the class. For a while, I was pointing out literary stuff, but then I just read. When students did their final evaluation of the course, that was their favorite class. Many of them didn’t even like that story much, but the “mmph” of my response to the book was a memorable experience for them.

  6. AJ Cousins says:

    “In most cases, we ask other writers to just tell us what we’re doing already. What is this? hoping that what we are told is something close to what it is we were to be exploring and uncovering and writing.”

    Thank god you wrote this! I so often feel guilty when I ask people to read things, because although I sometimes do want the line edit “help me untangle my Yoda-like prose” feedback, a lot of the time what I am looking for is just what you describe. Tell me what story your hear me telling so I can figure out what pieces of it are still in my head and need to be dragged onto the page so that you can hear them too. But I couldn’t figure out how to describe this need, so I was left asking people to “please just tell me what you think.” They love me in Vague-ville.

    Now I will cut and paste your words into my emails and my critique partners and beta readers will sigh with happiness to know what it is that I am hoping to hear from them. “What is this?” indeed. Thank you…

  7. Serena Bell says:

    I DMd Ruthie in desperation yesterday afternoon because I was FLAILING MADLY and she told me what I was trying to do at the beginning of my new book, and that allowed me, this morning, to wake up, and do it. (Also, she quoted you, and noted that she was doing just what you’d said. :-)) So thank you — thank you for the loveliness in this post, and for putting words to what the best critique partners do naturally.