Eight years as a newspaper book editor and you start to feel you've fielded all the questions there are. There's a tendency to put your brain on automatic pilot and let your tongue do the talking.
Then someone asks a question that forces you to have an original thought.That's painful.
It happened to me recently. Someone asked my favorite passage in literature - not favorite book or poem - but favorite passage.
I didn't know.
But now, after some painful thinking, I have it. The passage comes from chapter eight of "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's classic. Steinbeck is setting the stage for his saga and wants to prepare both the reader and the Joad family for the upcoming journey. So he gives us one long paragraph about Ma Joad - the woman who sits at the center of the book like a Dust Bowl queen.
Steinbeck puts this jewel in her crown:
Tom stood looking in. Ma was heavy, but not fat; thick with child-bearing and work. She wore a loose Mother Hubbard of gray cloth in which there had once been colored flowers, but the color was washed out now, so that the small flowered pattern was only a little lighter gray than the background. The dress came down to her ankles, and her strong, broad, bare feet moved quickly and deftly over the floor. Her thin, steel-gray hair was gathered in a sparse wispy knot at the back of her head. Strong freckled arms were bare to the elbow, and her hands were chubby and delicate, like those of a plump little girl. She looked out into the sunshine. Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.
A literature professor would point out the way Steinbeck begins by describing Ma Joad's clothes, then moves to her person - describing her arms, her hands, then her eyes. And how, through her eyes, Steinbeck takes us into the woman's soul.
As craft, it's wonderful work.
But craft isn't the reason the paragraph is wonderful. It's wonderful because it speaks to the heart from the heart. It tells us the truth.
The description of Ma Joad makes us feel more vulnerable, generous and alive as human beings.
Down inside of us, it feels a little bit how love feels.