The First Mouth that Drops Open in Surprise

From “The Writer as Illusionist,” by William Maxwell, from A William Maxwell Portrait:

A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations The writer has everything in common with the vaudeville magician except this: The writer must be taken in by his own tricks. Otherwise the audience will begin to yawn and snicker. Having practiced more or less incessantly for five, ten, or twenty years, knowing that the trunk has a false bottom and the opera hat a false top, with the white doves in a cage ready to be handed to him from the wings and his clothing full of unusual, deep pockets containing odd playing cards and colored scarves knotted together and not knotted together and the American flag, he must begin by pleasing himself. His mouth must be the first mouth that drops open in surprise, in wonder, as (presto chango!) this character’s heartache is dragged squirming from his inside coat pocket, and that character’s future has become his past while he was not looking.

With his cuffs turned back, to show that there is no possibility of deception being practiced on the reader, the writer invokes a time…invokes a place…He uses words to invoke his version of hat-wand the Forest of Arden. If he is a good novelist, you can lean against his trees; they will not give way. If he is a bad novelist, you probably shouldn’t. Ideally, you ought to be able to shake them until an apple falls on your head. (The apple of understanding.)