Lucia Berlin: A Master Class in Prose

I like working in Emergency – you meet men there, anyway. Real men, heroes. Firemen and jockeys. They’re always coming into emergency rooms. Jockeys have wonderful X-rays…Their skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs. St. Sebastian’s X-rays…The first jockey I met was Munoz. God. I undress people all the time and it’s no big deal. Takes a few seconds. Munoz lay there, unconscious, a miniature Aztec god. Because his clothes were so complicated, it was as if I were performing an elaborate ritual.

Wow, was my first reaction when I read that passage. If I had read that description in a romance novel, I would be hooked on that author for life.

Lucia Berlin‘s writing is so compelling because it can be passionate and romantic, but it’s also achingly brutal. Berlin’s life was tough, and it’s on full display in her short stories. She was an unrecovered alcoholic for much of her life. She also suffered from scoliosis. She wrote sporadically, publishing seventy-six stories in her three decades of writing, mostly in smaller literary magazines.

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I would never nominate Berlin as a template for how a writer should live her life, but I wish more writers had her gift for vibrant imagery and surprising use of language. I very rarely see that in romance and other genre fiction, which is why I sometimes get bored with them. Perhaps most readers don’t want to be challenged, but it’s what I enjoy most. I find unflinching honesty is often be the best way to approach a love story.

Here’s another favorite passage of mine, from Berlin’s story, “Melina.”

Beau had been a sandwich man in San Francisco…One day he had pulled his cart into an insurance office and he saw her. Melina…She was very tiny and thin. But it was her skin, he said. It was like she wasn’t a person at all but some creature made of white silk, of milk glass.

Beau didn’t know what came over him. He left the cart and his customers, went through a little gate over to where she stood. He told her he loved her. I want you, he said. I’ll get the bathroom key. Come on. It will just take five minutes. Melina looked at him and said, I’ll be right there.

I was pretty young then. This was the most romantic thing I had ever heard.

For a fascinating lesson in how to write amazing prose, I’d highly recommend picking up the newly published collection of Berlin’s stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. It moved me, and I’ve learned a great deal from it. It’s certainly challenged me to reconsider my own style, and how I can touch my own readers in surprising, compelling ways.

Best wishes,

Kelee

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