Login   Sign Up 


On Writing

by sqwark.com 

Posted: 16 May 2003
Word Count: 1439
Summary: My thoughts on what writing is and is not.

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced

I used to think that good writing was fine writing, comprised of exotic words, well-turned metaphors, sophisticated phrasing and a highly polished finish, from which emanated a rich yet refined aesthetic which transported one to an elevated, more rarefied place of being, like an expensive perfume. I used to think that fine writing straddled an intellectual terrain of references to other fine writing, embuing credibility, depth, mature understandings and erudition. I used to think that fine writing captured the complete cosmos of its ouvre within itself - precisely and definitively, leaving one gratified on all possible levels. I aspired to this. I still do to an extent.

I used to think that vocabulary was extremely important, for isn't that what writing is? the deft deployment of the rich, panoramic possibilites of language to produce a lilting and literary concert of orchestrated wordplay? Fine writing as comprised of interesting words and high colorotura seemed to be axiomatic. To this end, I cultivated a wide and somewhat esoteric vocabulary, carefully depositing every unusual gem I came across into a notebook replete with words which no-one had ever heard of, but which I figured might come in handy one day, if for nothing else than to show off my extraordinary vocabulary.

I used to think that the craft of writing was what really mattered, that if you followed the rules of skill, of moving from the general to the specific and back, the landing of the sentence properly, the well chosen detail, the honing and boiling down, the varying of sentence length and the myriad of other techniques employed by the skillful writer, then you had the tools, and the tools were the key. It was just a question of finding suitable subject matter. I had the words, I had the skills. I could turn out anything for anyone on any subject. This, it seemed to me, was the hallmark of a professional writer. So why couldn't I ever actually bring myself to call myself a writer? I was missing something.

And although I'd read various successful authors who categorically stated that you can't learn to write by reading other authors, I didn't quite believe it. Surely this couldn't be entirely true. Every artist learns from studying the masters. Don't they?

And so I read Jeanette Winterson and revelled in her stylised oranges and other fruit, her bountiful sating of all the senses, her full-bodied historical imagery thrown in the face of bleak futurism, her courage and determination in the championing of love in this age of empty cynicism, her weaving of the richest fabric possible with thread which she seemed to make herself. I greatly admired Jeanette Winterson.

I read Keri Hulme's The Bone People, that linguistic feast which took ten years to write and justifiably won the Booker with its surreal yet tangible evocation of New Zealand's maori culture, its fierce, beautifully-paced psychological excursions and intensity, and the wholly original lexicon she actually did make herself, in the crafting of this rare and masterful work of art. I respected Keri Hulme immensely.

I read Isabelle Allende and basked in her emotional warmth, her stories of great personal courage against south america's violent political backdrop, her adroit combination of the dramatic, the surreal and the everyday while maintaining a personability and fidelity to the human spirit sorely lacking in her male counterparts such as Marquez and his cool, distant treatment of similar material. I loved Isabelle Allende.

I read Peter Carey, carrying his short story The Chance around in my head as an intriguing conceptual landscape, and even when I stumbled upon a Borges story with an identical premise and realised that Carey had borrowed it, I still admired him as an outstandingly original voice whose control over his vast imagination (Illywacker) increased with every work (The Tax Inspector).

I admired non-contemporary writers too, of course - HG Wells, for instance. On rereading The Time Machine as an adult, I realised that Wells was a true cosmic spirit, extremely concerned with where humanity was heading, and endeavouring to draw attention to this while also satisfying his intrigue with science. I then chanced upon The New Machiavelli, and was apprised of the full breadth of the social, political, cultural and personal concerns of this - by then - fully mature writer and remarkable man.

I loved George Orwell too, his short story Shooting an Elephant forever etched in my memory as a deceptively simple yet supremely well-told tale of the folly of the British Raj in Asia, of the exploitation of a naive indigenous culture leading to the death of a magnificent and innocent creature, encapsulating the entire absurdity and tragedy of imperialism.

And most of all, I loved John Irving. His vast understandings and concern with the human condition, his penchant for the idiosyncratic and taboo (Hotel New Hampshire), his extraordinary skill in manifesting the hilarious possibilities of situational comedy (Cider House Rules), his trenchant flair for black comedy (Garp) and his sure grasp of the pressing issues of humanity from both sides of the gender gap. I loved his daring confidence in embuing feminism with black nonsense and taking it to ludicrous outposts, with the subtle message that one should live passionately and justly, but not hurt onself in the process. What a complex, rich, thinking writer, driven by a desire to make a difference, and extremely successful in doing so. I loved this guy on all possible counts. But there was something else about John Irving, something simple yet tanatalizingly important (The Water Method Man), which I just couldn't put my finger on.

One passage had me especially flummoxed. A side-splitting scene involving a condom on the verge of destroying his marriage, and the very ordinary but hilarious sequence of events leading up to it. It was situational black comedy at its best, and a relatively simple construct. Here was a passage to study, almost bland in its aesthetic, yet extraordinarily lively in its effect. If I could extract Irving's key to this scenario, then I too, would be able to write like that. But where was this exquisite comic tension located? It wasn't in the conceptual complexity or stylisation - there really wasn't any to speak of. It wasn't in the the characters or the dialogue, the situation or setting. Nothing really special there. And it wasn't in the words - they too were simple and common. Yet it had to be somewhere in the words, because the words were the writing. But which words? And how? The answer, I was convinced, was right in front of me - it simply required close reading and acute analysis. I studied them assiduously - individually and as a composite. I scoured every sentence, every paragraph for the key, back and forth, forth and back. But the more I searched, the more elusive it became. I read, reread and read again. It wasn't there. It had to be - yet it wasn't. Then where, dammit? I put it down. You evidently couldn't learn how to write by studying other writers, or at least I couldn't ... what a waste of time .... damm! ... I closed my eyes and sighed in resignation .... and only then did the full weight of the obvious truth take seed ... you COULDN'T learn how to write from other writers! because the key was within John Irving himself. It was in his tone, his sensibility, his particular take on things, and the confidence, skill and sure control he exercised in the being of himself. He did everything with nothing at all, and he made it look easy.

It occured to me then that it is a greater feat to do everything with nothing than it is to do something with everything. And moreover, why would I want to write like Irving when I'm not Irving? These writers are successful because they are bearing the fruits of a truly unique tree - Themselves. And the gift of self is surely more valuable than words from a notebook.

I've lost most of my vocabulary now - it gets in the way. It's still there somewhere or other if I need it, but I discovered that writing doesn't exist within an esoteric lexicon or the realms of erudition. True writing comes from the entire person, from the spirit of the self-actualizing individual to the spirit of many. It is the stance of being one's whole self by those who have the courage to realize who they truly are - in their full, unique, transcendent measure. True writing, in the final analysis, is the art of being properly alive.

Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 09:37 on 29 May 2003  Report this post
I urge everyone who cares about, and is puzzled by, the process of writing to read this very interesting contribution. It delves into the essence of what makes a piece of work 'good'. How much of literary 'goodness' comes from craft and how much from art? Hope you don't mind, Sqwark, but I'm going to start a specific forum topic based on this piece, hoping that an informed debate will ensue. There must be many others who struggle with the dilemma of craft vs art. I agree with your conclusion that writers should be true to themselves, should trust their own voices but so many of us are cursed with a lack of confidence or circumscribed by inhibitions acquired early in life.

Sqwark, I don't know whether or not you intended the device but I much enjoyed the way you went from a very elaborate style in the opening to a much less convoluted approach later on. The piece mirrored the journey from contrivance and technical wizardry to a more relaxed, personal form of expression. Whether intentional or not(ie crafted or the result of artistic intuition) - clever!

Account Closed at 13:05 on 29 May 2003  Report this post
A very interesting read, this. I found myself disagreeing with the initial point before having read the complete work.

Personally, I've always believed that the key to being able to write is to keep reading. And I have also found that reading more not only improves my vocabulary and my sense of "storytelling", but also spurs me to write more often, and to dedicate more time to putting my thoughts into words.

With that in mind, I initially denied the truth stated at the start of this piece, that one cannot learn to write by reading the work of others. Having read it all, I'm assuming the point here is that there is only so much you can learn from reading from other authors.

Obviously there has to be something from yourself, something from within that makes your writing unique.

Personally, I'm still struggling to find what in me that would be. I believe it's fairly different for everyone.

Ellenna at 20:25 on 19 September 2003  Report this post
What an absolutely terrific piece ..the first part ..and what you were saying was making the point so well illustrated the "words.".. and as you progressed your thoughts seemed to become relaxed as if you were having a one to one chat.. and you conveyed your message so succinctly..
what a wonderful illustration.. yes , be true to yourself and that shines when it comes to writing...how I agree.

I found this fascinating on many levels.


Prospero at 19:28 on 02 October 2010  Report this post
There you go, man

Stay as cool as you can

Meet piles of trials with smiles

It riles them to believe that you perceive the webs they weave

And keep on thinking free...

The Moody Blues

Y'know Sqwark, I once lost a whole summer holiday in my early teens trying to write like Jerome K. Jerome. I still love 'Three Men in a Boat', but I write in my own voice these days.

Keep the faith



To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .