When I was about six years old, an exotic older cousin from Mombasa taught me how to skip. She was sixteen, spoke several languages I couldn’t and treated me like a real person. I was in love within five minutes of meeting her. Before she taught me rope tricks, I was able to skip on the spot, swing the rope over my head and bring it sweeping down in conjunction with lifting my feet. It was an adequate skill, but not glamorous. My cousin taught me how to skip with two ropes, whirling each over and about like a dancer; how to jump into an existing skipping situation with another girl without falling over; how to twirl, swing, cross over, turn around, jump with both feet, alternate, and do all sorts of tricks I hadn’t known the humble skipping rope was capable of. I learned about tension and flexibility, trickery and skill, lengthening and shortening. Good skills for a writer to have.
I remember reading somewhere that a writer shouldn’t write the sorts of passages a reader skips over. Like long pages of description, especially landscape, unless you’re Thomas Hardy or Kamila Shamsie. Other things to avoid are information dumps and back story, dream sequences and technical details. As a reader I skip over all these—I want story. I’m not interested in long asides about why characters behave in particular ways, nor do I need to know in a crime thriller about lost girls what limnology means, or that diatoms are microscopic unicellular plants. Some writers want to tell us everything they know about their chosen topic. In great (to be skipped over) detail. Others think they are writing for a visual audience by shifting to an outdoor scene where vistas are described with great enthusiasm and moderate skill. Chekov’s gun analogy comes to mind, along with Hemingway’s taste for inconsequential detail. I hold firm with Chekov. Having once been subjected to The Old Man and the Sea over the course of an endless summer, I’ve resisted Hemingway with the same fervour I reserve for Kipling. One unmemorable sentence in Hemingway’s mercifully short novel is ten lines long. I still don’t know what that book was about apart from there being an old man and the sea, which is evident in the title; reading the book didn’t enlighten me.
The rope tricks I learned as a child seem to be something good writers do with quiet skill. In Elemental, Amanda Curtin manages that tension and flexibility by focussing on the lives being told, Meggie’s in the first half and Laura’s in the later section while dropping in landscape, character, resilience and tragedy in a luminous work that always feels nuanced, like life. In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson uses trickery and skill to show the alternate lives and futures of her unusual hero Ursula Todd, remaking and rewriting early twentieth-century history along the way. And I can’t go past Arundhati Roy’s skill in writing sentences, both short and long, that hum with multiple meanings, metaphor and mystery. All the writers I love to read know about those rope tricks I learned as a child. And on a daily basis, I try to remember, in my own words.
Rashida Murphy is the author of The Historian’s Daughter. Her short stories and poetry have been widely published. Her latest story is forthcoming in a new anthology published by Margaret River Press and Ethos Books.