Sunday, February 19, 2006

Writing is discovering - parts 1 & 2 of 12

Writing is discovering (Part 1 and 2 of 12 )

We learn how to write at school and then most of us write very little afterwards. We write letters to our friends and relatives but few of us write for pleasure. To be able to write well means practicing writing, and it also means reading more.

Writing for pleasure is a good way of finding out about ourselves. We write what we know about and in writing we also find out some things we didn’t know we knew. Reading what others have written allows us to learn about them and about writing itself – how to use words/sentences/paragraphs to communicate.

Perhaps you have recently felt the need to write something down. The act of writing a letter to a friend to say what you have been doing will make you think - make you remember something you thought you had forgotten, and make you relive it and enjoy it once more. For unlike speaking to someone, which is also therapeutic, writing is permanent; you can reread it and rewrite it. And while you are writing it you can discover new meaning, find new significance in what you have done. That is how writing teaches us something about ourselves.

Writing about something we know about but haven't actually done, or writing about somebody we know about but haven't actually met - this kind of writing - to be read by ourselves or sometimes by others, is called creative writing. You create a person, an event, an idea or whatever, and what you have created remains yours. Someone said that our mistakes are the only things that we can truly call our own, but I reckon we can claim our ideas put down in print are our very own too.

You might say that there is nothing new, that someone has written it all before, but is that really true? Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies and historical dramas, Agatha Christie wrote ‘whodunnits’, Charles Dickens wrote about the times he lived in, but that still doesn't mean everything's been covered; your thoughts are still unique, as unique as you are.

The things inside your head, your thoughts and our feelings, are what can make you vulnerable, and if sharing your innermost thoughts can be threatening, how much more intimidating is it to have those thoughts on paper, for all to see and confront you. Creating in writing is a bold step, but once taken can be the way to increasing self-confidence. Making a commitment to your views will bring confidence; the confidence to say what you believe. But take heart, at first, it's not vital that anybody else reads your early efforts at writing. The act of writing is the thing, it's a beginning, a start to finding out something you didn't know about yourself. Sharing that new knowledge with a partner, friend or confidant is a step in the direction of greater psychological health, for you and the people in your life, for your relationships, and for your own life.

Like you, every writer has felt a need to write. Dickens had to write to prevent himself and his family going the way of his father, into prison for debt, and because he felt compelled to comment on and criticize the world he had been born into. Hemingway was driven by his sense of adventure, expressing the things he experienced in perhaps the only way he could, and in the way only he could.

Jane Ellice Hopkins said, 'Gift, like genius, means an infinite capacity for taking pains.' Dickens, Hemingway and Shakespeare had this infinite capacity, but maybe they weren't aware they had it until they started writing. Another better known aphorism is that there's a book in everyone. Those who have already started to write have realized the truth of this, and have started to discover their infinite capacity for taking pains.
The exercise I recommend you today is to try to identify some of your needs to write, which may not always be your openly stated reasons for wanting to write. Above all, be honest with yourself. Write a dialogue between you as a writer and you as a reader. It may sound strange, but you will find out something about yourself that you weren’t fully aware of.

Learning from reading (Part 2 of 12)
To write well, you need to read, but having read something you enjoyed, the thing is not to copy but to develop your own style of writing, or should I say, styles, for different genres (types of writing) require different styles.

Within the genre of the short story, for example, it is obvious that a tale about the gold rush in the Yukon will be written in a different style to a story about a suburban dilemma in England.

I prefer to use the term 'voice' when talking about any particular style. As you write words down, you will hear them in your head, and if they sound right, and are consistent your audience will attune to them whilst reading. In the same way, whilst reading a short story by someone else, you will get used to the writer's 'voice' in the words s/he has written. The more you read, the more 'voices' you will hear, and your repertoire of 'voices' will increase.

I have no intention of telling readers which books to read. We all have our favorite authors and subjects; some people prefer detective novels, some sci fi, and some horror stories. The point in reading to improve your writing is not to necessarily move away from the kind of things you enjoy, but to notice things while you are reading them.

There are several things you will already have noticed whilst reading, and some other things you may not have noticed. The structure of the novel or short story is one thing to notice, although the structures of short stories vary enormously from those of novels, and for a very good reason; the novelist has much more space and time to develop characters, for instance, or to describe scenes and events.

The question of who is telling the story is an important one. In the marvelous novel 'Cold Mountain' by Charles Frazier, the story is narrated by two characters, Inman, a soldier returning from the American Civil War, and his former love, Ada, and the story switches from one to the other until they meet at Cold Mountain after the journey Inman takes to get back to her. This is not an uncommon way of telling a story; Dickens uses a similar technique in 'Bleak House'. But there are plenty of other ways of narrating the story, and the distance from the action can also vary with whoever is telling it. The all-knowing author is one, and this is characterised in the work of writers such as Jane Austen, or Sir Walter Scott. In these novels it is clear by the end what the opinion of the writer is.

More usually, in modern novels, the writer gives clues to the reader, rather than stating in overt terms what the reader's conclusions must be. In 'The Bonfire of the Vanities', Tom Wolfe never really offers an opinion on the central character, Sherman McCoy, but rather, through the things he says and does, the writer gives the reader pretty clear indications that the man is heading for a fall, despite his own feeling of invincibility, and the title helps too. However, plot is something I wish to deal with later in this series, so let's leave it there for the time being.

The point about who does what in anything you happen to be reading is that you notice it, notice and remember. For then you will have choice, and that is what ultimately gives a writer freedom; the freedom to tell the tale in the way she wants, to create an impression on the reader. The impression readers get from reading is their own business. There are as many interpretations of any particular piece of fiction as there are readers of it. I would say that the best a writer can hope for is to keep readers interested, and keep them turning the pages.

Besides the structure of the novel; the plot and the identity of the narrator, the next thing to notice, but probably more difficult to do is to notice the language the writer uses. At sentence level, for example, it is easy to notice that Hemingway uses much shorter sentences than Jane Austen, but within sentences, the words writers use will be different too, as will the structuring of each sentence, and this will, of course, vary from sentence to sentence. There is a great deal of difference between:
'The cat sat on the mat.'
'The mat was sat on by the cat.'
using a very simple example. But the writer could write,
'The cat matted down.'
'The cat flopped matward.'
The main difference as far as grammar is concerned is that the first two sentences are conventional, whereas the second two are not; the former uses what appears to be a new word, 'matted', and the latter, a ‘portmanteau word’ matward of my own coining. Either way, the same thing happened ; the cat sat on the mat, but all four sentences have a different feel about them, a different 'voice'. Noticing the linguistic tricks writers use is one of the steps to becoming a better writer, and a more alert reader. The different ways writers use words cannot be just put into the simplistic pigeon-holes; formal and informal. Better is how salient is the action being described, or how incidental? In the examples above, the first two sentences seem to give the cat's sitting itself on the mat some kind of prominence, whereas the second two treat the cat's action as something incidental to something else that is going on, making it sound less important.

Which way the writer chooses may depend on this salience rather than on any aspect of grammar, but more of grammar later.

A useful exercise now might be to pick up any four novels at hand, and open them at any page to read and notice any differences in 'voice' you can identify, and then, having noticed that there are some, to examine what it is that makes them different. To read through the words to get at the action is one thing, to stop at them to see how your attention is being manipulated is quite another.


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