“To write a genuine familiar or truly English style is to write as anyone would speak in common conversation, who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes.”William Hazlitt
Last week I browsed Brevity, a website dedicated to the brief essay form, and I chanced upon a blog post by Kate Walter called ‘Rotating the Writing Crops‘. After working long and hard during the pandemic to publish her memoir Kate, naturally, ran dry. Some time afterwards an editor commissioned her for an assignment and while writing it a metaphor occurred to her: farming and rotating crops.
“The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.”
A few months ago I was working hard on an essay of my own, but after three months work something gave out. I couldn’t continue with it. Diminishing returns. I took a while for me to recognise what happened but I took it as my body’s way of saying enough. Yes, work ethic goes a long long way in sustaining creative output, more so than inspiration, but sooner or later something will give. So, for now, I’m working on lighter (but no less loved) forms like haiku and haibun while my own essay crop lies fallow.
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”Richard Price
“The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly, asserting the facts as you understand them, your perceptions as you’ve gathered them.
Part of the trouble may be this: you’re afraid your ideas aren’t good enough, your sentences not clever or original enough.
But what if your ideas are coherent and thoughtful? What if allowing us to see what is accurate and true is among the best work writing can do?
One purpose of writing -its central purpose- is to offer your testimony about the character of existence at this moment.”Several Short Sentences About Writing (p.132-133), Verlyn Klinkenborg
“One question a teacher of writing is often asked, in one form or another is: “Do I have it?” Or, you know, “Do I have it?” That is: “If I keep working at this, will it, in the end, be worth it? Am I a real writer? Will I be able to publish? Can you guarantee, based on what you’ve seen of my writing (of me, my life, my disposition), that this will all work out?””
Speaking from the heart: I have never been able to tell, at all. Honestly. Even among our very gifted students at Syracuse, I would never hazard a guess. There are too many variables and too many unknowns.
… for her, the writer, the game is not: “First, satisfy myself that, if I do the work and put in the time, all will be well, and then, well-pleased, go ahead and do the work” but, rather: “Do the work in order to find out.””George Saunders, Story Club, Issue ‘Joy, not Fear’
If you haven’t already I’d recommend subscribing to George Saunders’ Story Club newsletter. He’s a superb writing teacher.
“A writer’s real work is the endless winnowing of sentences,
The relentless exploration of possibilities,
The effort, over and over again, to see in what you started out to say
The possibility of saying something you didn’t know you could.”
“The emotional power the reader feels
Depends on how clearly you know what your words
That clarity isn’t natural.
It’s artificial, the result of hard work.”
“Style is an expression of the interest you take in the
making of every sentence.
It emerges, almost without intent, from your engagement
with each sentence.
It’s the discoveries you make in the making of the prose
itself.”Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, pages 14, 82, 84
“Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.”
A writer may write painstakingly, assembling the work slowly, like a mosaic, fitting and refitting sentences and paragraphs over the years. And yet to the reader the writing may seem to flow.
The reader’s experience of your prose has nothing to do with how hard or easy it was for you to make. You’re not writing for a reader in the mirror whose psychological state reflects your own. You have only your own working world to consider. The reader reads in another world entirely.Several Short Sentences About Writing, p.67
My copy of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book came in the post today. It’s full of craft wisdom like the above. Wow.
In a letter to his friend, fellow writer Robert Wallsten, John Steinbeck included some writing advice that I read many years ago and ever since then that advice has been part of my own writing process.
One piece of advice he gave was to:
“Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”
In general writers tend to dread first drafts because for some the stakes are too high every time (their identity as writers!) but I’ve learnt to love first drafts because, since I know I’m going to cut or rewrite most of it anyway, my focus is more on the amount of words rather than their quality. I think Steinbeck is right to say that when you suspend any judgement upon your writing until after the draft is done you relate to the words differently and out of that relationship comes more natural writing.
It’s not that words themselves are slippery. Their definitions more or less stay the same, but instead it’s the meanings we use words to find (and later express) that are slippery because, more often than not, we don’t know what we want to say until we have something down on the page (or screen) and go, “nah, that’s not it.”
In his latest blog post Alan Jacobs quoted the German philosopher Heidegger on the nature of art which I think applies to us:
“What art is we should be able to gather from the work. What the work is we can only find out from the nature of art. It is easy to see that we are moving in a circle. […] It is said that what art is may be gathered from a comparative study of available artworks. But how can we be certain that such a study is really based on artworks unless we know beforehand what art is?”
And on it goes.
I think the very slipperiness of writing, where we exert ourselves to discover meaning, makes it creative and I think this is apparent if we compare this ‘creative’ writing to writing we may find in some workplaces where meaning comes ready-made in the form of abbreviations and jargon. When we create our own meanings, in whatever form, that makes the writing creative or, at the very least, interesting to read.
“Your best tools are short, plain Anglo-Saxon verbs. I mean active verbs, not passive verbs. If you could write an article using only active verbs, your article would automatically have clarity and warmth and vigor. […] Fall in love with active verbs. They are your best friends.”William Zinsser, Writing English as a Second Language
“The nouniness of a piece of writing is a sure sign of lack of care for the reader and lack of thought in the writer. For writing is not just a way of communicating; it is a way of thinking. Nouny writing relieves the writer of the need to do either. In nouny writing, anything can be claimed and nothing can be felt. No one says who did what to whom, or takes ownership or blame. Instead of saying that x is not working (verb and participle), they say that there has been a loss of functionality (two nouns) in x.
How do you breathe life into sentences choked with nouns? Simple: use verbs. […] Verbs enact this universal law: everything moves. […] Life is a noun but it can only be lived as a verb.”Joe Moran, First You Write a Sentence