Monday, March 28, 2016

Reads for Writers: The Outermost House by Henry Beston Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice and/or creativity.

          The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston is the memoir of a writer who built a two-room house on Cape Cod overlooking the ocean. His keen observations on nature make this book a classic.

          Henry Beston was quoted by Mary Oliver in Blue Pastures on page 34. She highly recommended Chapter III “The Headlong Wave” in The Outermost House.


He devotes a single chapter—and it is no brief chapter—to a description of his constant companion, the ocean wave, that form, that long tumult, that energy with its “wisps of watery noise, splashes and counter splashes, whispers, seething, slaps and chucklings.”…He describes waves which come onto the beach on quiet days, windy days, long days of storm, and nights too… (page 45 in The Outermost House)


          In the summer of 1924, Beston began living for a year on Eastham Beach hearing the waves every moment, in every season, in all kinds of weather, seeing them during the day every time he looked out a window and anytime he took a walk. This familiarity led to inspiration. He writes 18 pages capturing waves in all their forms. It is a masterclass on verbs of muscle and adjectives of exactitude as extolled by Mary Oliver.

          My favorite passages in Chapter III are:

The rhythm of waves beats in the sea like a pulse in living flesh. It is pure force, forever embodying itself in a succession of watery shapes which vanish on its passing. (page 47)

Far out at sea, in the northeast and near the horizon, is a pool of the loveliest blue I have ever seen here—a light blue, a petal blue, blue of the emperor’s gown in a Chinese fairy tale. (pp. 49-50)


          Beston doesn’t limit himself to describing waves. He also records the variations of weather, seasonal changes, birds, insects, strolls, “treasures” washed ashore or away, and his own feelings and thoughts about solitude.

The dune bank was washing away…under the onslaught of the seas…there crumbled out the blackened skeleton of an ancient wreck…As the tide rose this ghost floated and lifted itself free…There was something inconceivably spectral in the sight of this dead hulk thus stirring from its grave and yielding its bones again into the fury of the gale. (page 88)

From the moment that I rose in the morning and threw open my door looking toward the sea to the moment when the spurt of a match sounded in the evening quiet of my solitary house, there was always something to do, something to observe, something to record, something to study, something to put aside in a corner of the mind. There was the ocean in all weathers and at all tides, now grey and lonely and veiled in winter rain, now sun-bright, coldly green, and marbled with dissolving foam…the little family gatherings of winter birds; there was the glory of the winter sky rolling out of the ocean over and across the dunes…(pp. 91-92)

          Great writing needs inspiration and time to observe, consider, scribble, rewrite, and edit. We can’t all go to a little cottage on the coast for a year, but we can make the most of the writing time we do have—jot, jot, jot until you can get back to your desk.

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