Mastodon The Writing Desk: Writers Go Deeper: Marcel Proust

2 March 2012

Writers Go Deeper: Marcel Proust

This is one of the most useful writing ideas I’ve picked up over the years. Your work in progress is storming ahead and you can hardly write quickly enough as new plot twists form in your creative mind. You need to slow down and go deeper. Deeper into the minds of your characters. Deeper into their backstory. Deeper into the information reaching their senses. Proust illustrates the power of this with his madeleine moment:

My mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?  … when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.  (In Search of Lost Time - translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.)

Next time you are 500 words short of your daily writing target, go deeper. Explore the infinite possibilities of your fictional world. 


  1. Love the sentiment of going deeper. I often write it on my student's work: go deeper here. Important to remember for my own work as well. Thanks.

    1. Thank you Charlotte (if you look on my 'inspiration' tab you will see who tops the list of people who inspire me)

  2. That's a beautiful excursion into someone's mind and experience. So often today, we feel pressured by the short attention spans of many readers. We feel we need to quickly move on with the story, but sometimes the story is what's happening inside a character.

  3. So true Belinda - writers have to engage the reader by going deeper


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