Saturday, May 30, 2015

Writing Class Confidential Part III

In classes where the teacher is an aggressively self-styled expert (and even some where she is not), the class members will savage each other in an attempt to gain her favor. It’s an unpleasant scene, to say the least. In others, the teacher becomes a kind of self-help guru, convincing people who can’t write that they can so they will come back and pay for more praise when the next class rolls around. The teacher becomes the object of hero worship. It’s grimy and greasy and uncomfortable to watch these dynamics. And yet, a good teacher can make you aware of what you are doing that works, so that you can keep trying to produce more of it, while she does the same for you with that which doesn’t. This advice can be invaluable, especially when you find you and she are on the same page about what good writing should be.

And still….the thing is, no matter what you write, someone is going to not like it. It’s that subjective. But it is not completely subjective either, and some writing really does suck. You have to learn when yours does, and when it doesn’t. Other people can help you learn to do that. Or not.

Finally, you need to be aware of as much of the art and craft of writing as you can. But you also need to do something original. When Hemingway did all of that minimalist stuff, it was new. At least somewhat new. He took what there was, and incorporated it into his work, but he transformed it enough so that it was unmistakably his. That is the trick, and it is a great one. If this intertextuality stuff is true, if everything a writer writes is part of a grand conversation he or she is having with other writers, you need to actually take part in the conversation (produce something that recognizes external standards enough so that it is comprehensible), but also say something a little unlike anything anyone else has said before.

That is what all this stuff about voice is. To be undeniably yourself, to create a persona that coheres, that grabs the reader’s attention and holds it until the end of the piece. That is not about being trendy, or politically correct, or even about being likeable. You can start learning it in writing class, but it is not something you are going to memorize, incorporate as a list of rules, unless the rule was something like this: Be interesting. You learn voice at the place where the rules leave off and the art begins. You learn it by reading and thinking about writing, by taking writing classes, but most of all by writing.

Language is less a garden than it is a jungle. It grows wild and fast, and no matter how hard you try to regulate its growth, its change, it nevertheless grows and changes. The meanings of words change, so that in the Middle Ages silly was a synonym for blessed, and now it means insipid and foolish—basically any movie with Jim Carrey in it. And grammar and syntax changes too—Shakespeare used double negatives all the time without being misunderstood, or excoriated by William Safire or Edwin Newman. Postpositive modifiers were once considered OK in English, and word order was less important because there were more inflections (endings on verbs and nouns and modifiers and pronouns that indicated their role in the sentence). And yet if you read Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE, or Fowler’s MODERN ENGLISH USAGE, you get the impression that there is in existence somewhere some perfect, Platonic form of language, some language so transparent it rivals the nature it describes in beauty and complexity, and that we traduce this marvelous instrument every time we open our barbaric mouths.

I think this is the impulse behind the part of style books that do things like try to freeze usage—to rail against irregardless, to hope that we can defeat the incorrect usage of hopefully, and not be nauseated by the improper deployment of nausea, etc. We want language to always mean what we want it to mean. But it never does. Language is just a convention—something we decide means what it means, and people change their minds, things evolve. This is good, in a way, as language needs to be flexible in order keep up with a rapidly changing world, but it is bad because no matter how hard we try to be understood, language is slippery. Trying to calcify it, to make it some monolith, is like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

And yet I am not completely averse to trying to slow it down, especially on the page. The written word loses the immediacy of a living context, or an interlocutor, of the actual lived situations it tries to replicate, and so you have to come to some agreement on what things mean. It is not that usages of the words themselves are good or bad, but we make it so. As long as there is agreement, I am copacetic. And writing is often a vehicle we use to try and transport and convey difficult information, so Fowler has his place. And he can be fun. I love to go and look up things like the difference between continuous and continual, funereal, funerary, and funeral.

What irks me is capriciousness, rules for the sake of rules, and the insistence that you are not trying to decide on a convention for use, but are transmitting some natural law that came to you from up on high, directly to you from the Gods of Language. The difference between who and whom, to be hoped and hopefully, even continuously and continually (if you know the context)—all of these are strictly academic, and only have use as ammunition for pedants.

This is not to say that rules are not helpful in some ways, and the knowledge of them can guide us when our instinct fails us. A very tangled sentence can be explicated sometimes with the good old Elementary School technique of diagramming. And when a sentence of yours gets long and winding, wending its way towards God knows where, it can help to go back to things like rules of agreement to make sure you have made it clear who is doing what to whom, and what modifies what.

A lot of this is instinctive—a five year old has mastered rules for creating past tense, the difference between mass and count nouns, and they often can remember which verbs are strong ones (use an internal vowel change to signal past tense). This is pretty good. But with more complex writing, use the old Fowler’s, and the Strunk and White. You can make yourself clear to your reader, and your reader, especially if they are using the same references, can figure you out more easily than if you just kind of let it all hang out.

Which gets at a more basic question. What is writing for? What is language for? Many would say it is for the accurate transmission of ideas. But then what are academic and scientific and political and legal speech and writing for? They are often more about obscuring the truth, or the lack of knowledge of the speaker, than they are about anything else. But I am assuming that writers are concerned with making themselves understood. And I think Strunk and White give us some great advice along those lines. Prefer the abstract over the concrete, use parallel constructions, omit needless words, etc—all of these are great advice, although not an excuse for being simplistic—you can’t make something less complex than it really is, but at the same time you don’t have to describe it in any more complex a way than its nature allows. Of course, to do so you must understand that nature. What Strunk and White are doing mostly is asking us to take care with our listeners, especially since when they read our stuff, we won’t be there to answer their questions.

This is what style manuals can do—encourage us to be clear, to think more carefully. These are issues on a micro scale, and it certainly is important to address things on that level. But what about things like voice, and the use of metaphor, plotting, narrative tension, etc? Aristotle, in his POETICS, said great use of metaphor was the province of the genius. I agree. Aristotle went on to talk about dramatic unity, but he did so with the understanding that he was only trying to give structure , to provide some helpful tips, and that in great work genius would have to carry the rest of the load. And yet, even the genius can be helped by a little conscious analysis of the process in which he is engaged. And for us non-geniuses, it is maybe even more important to be aware of “rules” which will keep us from making stylistic mistakes a genius would avoid by instinct.

And still, I think the best idea, beyond all those silly writing exercises you will find in some writing how-to manuals, is to just read and write. And read what you have written. Pay careful attention to what works, and try to reproduce it. It is both a conscious and unconscious process, but I think each kind of process can influence the other. Try to let your muse inspire you, but also apply some rigorous editing after the muse has done what she can. It’s a question of both art and craft.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Illustration by Donna MacDonald


  1. Great picture, Kate. tjs

    1. Found it on the internet. Donna MacDonald does beautiful paintings. Check out her web site for more.