Good Writing is like Amber

February 4, 2014 | By | 5 Replies More

Final version the BetThe gash in the bark fills slowly with thick aromatic resin, clear and golden; it seeps out and spills over, precious droplets that catch the light. Tiny fragments of bark and leaves and mosses, a gossamer-light wing of a fly, all are caught and enveloped as the tree bleeds sap to seal the wound. Years pass and the sap dries and hardens and the open wound becomes smaller beneath the resin.

One day the tree finally falls, becomes a part of a layer as the forest ceases to be a forest, and is pressed down and down by more debris. Time unknowing passes and endless chances before I see it, shaped and polished and set in silver, laid on blue velvet in a jewellery shop window.

I’ve always loved amber but I didn’t get to buy my first piece until around the same time the price shot up as a direct result of Jurassic Park. Since then I’ve got quite savvy and found excellent pieces for decent prices. It’s pretty much my favourite stone (even though it’s not a stone) because it’s so light and warm to wear.

But it has always made me conscious of how good writing is like amber. Good writing is about more than simple story, more than the he-said-she-said of snappy dialogue, the literary fire-works of cunning vocabulary. Good writing reaches deep into the soul of the reader and leaves an impression.

Amber starts with a wound. Trees that produce resin bleed it to seal and protect open lesions in their skins. The sap contains all sorts of compounds that fight infections and fungi, and forms a sticky barrier to stop further loss of sap and prevent entry of micro-organisms. The emotional wounds we all experience in life can turn us bitter, or we can in essence bleed out because there is nothing to stem the wound.

That’s the first healing power of writing: to staunch the wound and prevent the bitterness sneaking in. It gives you the chance to encapsulate some of the pain, and keep it from hurting you more.

Over time, the tree sap hardens and becomes part of the tree, and the bark often grows around this new tissue. Eventually, over many thousands of years, sometimes many millions (the darker amber is almost always the oldest) the resinous lump becomes amber. It washes up on the coast where I lived for six years, but you’d not know what it was, because by then it’s dull, coated in excrescences from years washed along the bottom of the North sea.

Viv as piratePeople skilled at spotting these unlikely lumps patrol the strand line. You might see this as a draft of a piece of writing, still rough and at a first glance, not very promising but at the core, there’s something extraordinary. The time under the sea as well as the time under the earth is that period of incubation, the dark time where ideas ferment and seethe. The raw material is there, along with the snapshot moment of time, captured by the flow of sap, preserved and fresh still but safe. It can’t hurt you any more. It’s locked at the centre of that lump.

Now take that unprepossessing hunk of pain locked in amber and hone it. Centuries of wave action has shaped it; what it needs now is to have the barnacles scraped off, and the surface smoothed. Polish it with finer and finer sandpaper until all it needs is to be caressed with silk for you to feel the crackle of electricity.

Look at it: the story of a wound is at the heart of this object. You can see the tiny scraps of moss and leaf and perhaps even a biting insect caught in the deluge of sap. The moments following the wounding are recorded, held in a capsule of bright golden amber, but the moment is long gone and so too is the wound. Only this beautiful object remains, testament to the power of healing.

The writing can shine, can show that moment again, but both the writer and the reader can see beyond the brutality of the wound. There is distance and there is transformation and there is communication. One might even say there is communion, between the soul of the writer and the soul of the reader. The reader can peer into the wound and be moved but not harmed. They do not need to experience the primal pain to understand the power of the story.

This is the power of amber. This is the power of great writing. Once you have experienced it you can spot the fakes. Few who have handled real amber are fooled for long by the imposters, those plastic trinkets, or the immature beads of copal. They seem tawdry and unsatisfying and cheap ‘n’ cheerful  but they’ll never take the place of true, authentic amber. Or excellent writing.


As reported by the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus around 600 BC, charge (or electricity) could be accumulated by rubbing fur on various substances, such as amber. The Greeks noted that the charged amber buttons could attract light objects such as hair. They also noted that if they rubbed the amber for long enough, they could even get an electric spark to jump. This property derives from the triboelectric effect )

Vivienne writes novels, short stories and poetry, and blogs at zenandtheartoftightropewalking

Her books are available on amazon

Follow her on twitter  @guineapig66

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Good Writing is like Amber | philipparees | April 19, 2015
  2. Tales of Amber | Zen and the art of tightrope walking | February 5, 2014
  1. This ‘secondary amber’piece itself illustrates the power of metaphor in writing. The electrifying capacity of amber is preserved in its name ‘Elektron’ in Greek and goes back to Theophrastus, the ‘communication at a distance’ was what fascinated him and many since.

    I cannot think of a better analogy to describe the power of deep writing, the wound polished and immortal, and thereby made universal.

    I am surprised there have been so few comments on this beautifully written piece, both from writers and readers. Many readers (perhaps through modesty) fail to understand that the electricity has to travel betweeen two poles and they are the other pole. Nothing makes that clearer than the great differences evoked by the same piece of writing.

  2. Marialena says:

    What a beautiful post, Vivienne! The analogy is so apt. I particularly love the connection to electricity, because writing that is born from pain honed by time will lead to sparks on reading.

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