Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 10 February 2013

Writing well; an art easily misconstrued

A friend of mine lent me a book, How to Write a Sentence; and how to read one by Stanley Fish, which is a New York Times bestseller according to its cover. It’s not a lengthy book and it’s easy to read, but I’m unsure of its intended audience because I don’t believe it’s me. And I’m a writer, albeit not a very successful one.

Fisher is a 'professor of law at Florida International University' with an impressive curriculum vitae in teaching at tertiary level. His deconstruction of the humble sentence reminds me of why I’m not a teacher; though, at the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I think I make a good teacher, with the caveat that the quality of my teaching seems to be more dependent on the quality of my students than myself.

I recently watched a biopic on virtuoso Dutch violinist, Janine Jensen, which I considered so good I’ve seen it twice. At one point she’s asked why she doesn’t give master classes. Given her schedule (200 concert performances in 1 year) she might have said lack of time, but one of her close friends said she won’t teach because it would require her to analyse her own method; deconstruct her technique. A lot of artists would empathise with her, including me, yet I have taught writing. The point is that I never analyse how I write sentences and, to be frank, Fish’s book doesn’t inspire me to.

The human brain has the remarkable ability to delegate tasks, that we perform routinely, to the subconscious level, so we can use our higher cognitive facilities for higher cognitive tasks. We do this with motor tasks as well, which is why we can walk and talk at the same time. Other animals can also do this, but they don’t do it at the cognitive level like we do. Young animals play in order to hone the motor skills they need in adulthood to survive, whether they be predators or prey. Humans do it with language amongst other things. And creating sentences is one of those things that the brain delegates so that when we are having a conversation they seem to come ready-made, pre-constructed for delivery as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Elite performers like professional sportspeople and musicians (like Jensen mentioned above) are so good at what they do that their brain delegates tasks that we can’t even do, which is why they dazzle us with their brilliance. When it comes to writing fiction, the same level of delegation applies. The first hurdle in writing fiction is to create characters, and, in fact, when I taught creative writing the first lesson I gave was to give an exercise in creating character. This is something that most people can’t do, even though they can write coherently, yet writers create characters in their sleep, sometimes literally. In other words, creating characters becomes second-nature, something they do without really thinking about it too much. Characters come into their head, complete with dialogue, temperaments and attitudes, in the same way that melodies come into the heads of tunesmiths.

Fish gives us two new terms, “hypotaxis” and “parataxis”, both Greek words; technical terms for the 2 main sentence ‘styles’ that he discusses at length: ‘the subordinate style’ and ‘the additive style’ respectively. To be fair to Fish, he acknowledges, after referencing them once, that we will probably never use them again. By ‘style’ Fish means structure, and the subordinate style is effectively a main clause with subordinate clauses added on. The best example he takes from Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963), where King delivers a train of clauses describing the oppression of his people at that time, ending with a succinct final clause that sums it all up: “…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” The entire sentence is some 300 words long, yet it’s a rhetorical tour-de-force.

The additive style is where clauses are strung together almost dissociatively and the examples he gives seem to ramble a bit, which I suspect was a deliberate device by their authors to create the impression of a disjointed mind. Then he gets to Hemingway, whom I think was a master. I believe Hemingway was such a significant influence on 20th Century writing that it’s worth quoting Fish at length:

Hence his famous pieces of advice to writers: use short sentences, write clearly, use simple Anglo-Saxon words, don’t overwrite, avoid adjectives and leave yourself out of it. The result was a style that has been described as realistic, hardboiled, spare, unadorned, minimalist, and lapidary. The last two words are particularly apt: a lapidary style is polished and cut to the point of transparency. It doesn’t seem to be doing much. It does not demand that attention be paid to it. It aspires to a self-effacement that allows the object to shine through as a master stonecutter allows the beauty of the stone to shine through by paring away layers of it.

I read somewhere last year, a reviewer saying that Hemingway changed the way we write, and I agree. I had just read Islands in the Stream, a loosely connected trilogy, published after his death, concerning the exploits of an artist living in Cuba and performing undercover operations in the War. What struck me was how he put you there, and you felt like you had experienced what the protagonist had experienced, some of which was emotionally gut-wrenching. As I said, Hemingway was a master.

So there are places in Fish’s tome where our minds meet and concur. In other places he suggests exercises in creating better sentences, which I neither promote nor condemn. If a writer is an artist then they ‘feel’ their sentences without analysing them or dissecting them. A writer of fiction should write as if they are the first person to read their words, as if they were actually written by someone else. I know that doesn’t make sense but anyone who has done it knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Reading Fish’s deconstruction of style (as opposed to content) prompted me to re-read the opening page of my novel, which stands pretty much as when I first wrote it, and they were also the first words of that story I put down. What I notice is that it has an edginess and urgency that reflects the content itself. In fiction you have to create a mood; there is always an emotional message; but you have to create it in a way that the reader is unaware of it, except subliminally. I used to tell my class that good writing is transparent: readers don’t notice good writing; they only notice bad writing. The reader should be so engaged by the character and the story that the writing becomes subliminal. The medium of the novel is the reader’s imagination, not the words on the page. The words are like notes on a music score, which, without an instrument to play them, are lifeless. In the case of a novel, the instrument is the reader’s imagination.

Before Hemingway, writers used long-winded descriptions, though I think film has had a lot to do with their progressive extinction. But Hemingway, I believe, showed us how to create a scene without belabouring it and without ‘adornment’, as Fish describes above.

I’ve said on this blog before, that description is the part of a novel that readers will skip over to get on with the story. So, not surprisingly, I provide as little description as possible, and always via the protagonist or another character, but just enough so the reader can create their own images subconsciously, which they do so well that I’ve had people congratulate me on how good my descriptions are. “I could see everything,” they say. Yes, because you created it yourself.


Eli Horowitz said...

"I think I make a good teacher, with the caveat that the quality of my teaching seems to be more dependent on the quality of my students than myself."

Don't worry - I feel the same way. Having good students is a huge part of being a good teacher.

Also, this seems totally right:

"Elite performers like professional sportspeople and musicians (like Jensen mentioned above) are so good at what they do that their brain delegates tasks that we can’t even do, which is why they dazzle us with their brilliance. When it comes to writing fiction, the same level of delegation applies."

In many ways this is even true of nonfiction writing, I'd imagine. The struggle for a writer is not to think of something to say but to drag the thing that one wants to say out of where it's hiding without damaging it overmuch.

Paul P. Mealing said...

HI Eli,

Your last comment reminds me of Stephen KIng who once compared writing a story to archeology. He said you try to bring it to the surface without damage or contamination but you never quite succeed. In other words, I believe he meant that you try not to contaminate it with your own beliefs and prejudices, but that's virtually impossible.

Archeology is a good metaphor, because it does feel hidden and submerged, especially with fiction. I've always imagined the metaphor of mining where you are trying to follow a seam of gold surrounded by rubbish and sometimes the rubbish gets caught up with the gold or you miss the seam altogether.

Regards, Paul.