Thursday, 8 December 2011

On (Good) Writing

The best writing has an inimitable lightness to it. Skillful authors seem almost to dance across the page, showing a practiced ease that can only dazzle the rest of us. They are quick and surefooted; sweeping and sprightly. And like all great dancers they display a certain economy of movement, conveying much with little. I would say their words flow, but that doesn't capture it entirely. One hears flow and thinks smooth, or even. Good writing is often smooth, but it must also be jarring. It must surprise. Jolt! No, a good writer can somehow turn on a conversational dime, changing direction as if their train of thought had no more momentum than...

Well, than the trains of tots, as it were. But writing does have momentum of course, too much of it. And to steer such an unwieldy beast with the grace and aplomb that some writers do, when a single misstep can bring things to a crashing, grinding halt, requires a deft hand indeed.

As I said, lightness.

Consider the following paragraph, written by Christopher Hitchens (I get paid by the mention, you see):
I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little. Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning. It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services. They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist. Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives.
Read that and pay attention to how it's written. And do really read it: look at the descriptiveness, the imagery, the absolutely spot-on metaphor, the sheer fluidity of it. I mean, ye gods Hitch! To borrow a line, you play a game with which I'm not familiar. I must say I envy the easy command of language that writers like Hitchens seem to have (Sean Carol is another example; he has an uncanny knack for expressing exactly what I was thinking in an impossibly brief few sentences. And don't get me started on Eliezer Yudkowsky). What such people have in common, I believe, is the way in which their writing seems completely effortless. Slaving over a hot laptop for hours? Not these giants. No, their fingers fly over the keyboard like those of a master pianist, and with no more effort than you or I might use to create our newest oh-so-clever status update, brilliance is produced. Or such is the impression anyway.

My own writing, I won't leave you wondering, seems entirely effortful to me - because of course it is entirely effortful. The rhythm of my prose, runty little thing that it is, shows its face for scant half-sentences or so before retreating to its cave to signal six more hours of writer's block. No, I know exactly how hard it is for me to write, and "effortless" is not a word I would use to describe it. But then, I don't really think it's that easy for Hitchens & Co., either. I'm sure their writing sessions can be tortuously slow at times, if not quite so tortuously slow as mine. Nevertheless I think there's a very important difference between a writer like Christopher Hitchens and myself (besides talent, experience, and quality I mean), and it deserves to have some light shed on it.

Let me make an analogy. In the world of drawing we see one particularly well-demarcated camp. It is defined mostly by the short, painstaking pencil strokes of its adherents, and to a lesser extent their choice of subject matter (almost invariably cartoon characters). It is the sort of style that produces a drawing like this:

Sorry, random person on the internet. I genuinely mean no offense.

I should be clear: this is not a bad drawing. Not really. I myself spent much of junior high happily churning out one Pokemon after another in much the same style. But as I've read more and more about drawing, it's become clear to me that professionals tend to look at a pieces like this and cringe. Compare and contrast with the following:

Notice how with just a few confident strokes she was able to define the outline of a figure. After a mere thirty seconds she had already produced a drawing that could trounce the realism of any I could create in a day. This is the kind of drawing I wish I could do, and it represents not just a difference in degree of skill, but in kind.

Paint with broad strokes, they say. And it's true. The problem with my kind of drawing is the tiny, meticulous strokes. They seem perfectly fine for any individual part of the piece, in that you can't identify anything wrong with them. But add them all together and you never get quite what you were imagining. Something seems off; not quite right. What happens is the drawing winds up lacking the cohesiveness and energy that great drawings have, because it was constructed rather than drawn.

The analogy to writing is clear, I think. On the one hand we have short-strokers such as myself, who treat sentences as Lego blocks, to be carefully selected and fit together one at a time. Such an approach can lead to proficient and even beautiful writing, but there will always be something missing from it. I picture a dance student who struggles to learn by watching the specific moves of her instructor, not realizing that she should be paying attention to the rhythm instead. In the end she may produce a passable dance, but it likely won't seem effortless.

On the other hand we have masters like Hitchens, who hardly seem to choose sentences at all. Instead it as if they choose directions, boldly carving out words by following the natural seams of the conversation. This is what I mean when I talk about an easy command of language, and it's akin to the confident strokes of the professional artist.

So what to do then? I was already well aware that Hitchens wields a better pen than I; how does it help me to know exactly the manner in which he bests me? Ah, but with knowledge of our flaws oft comes routes for self-improvement. And indeed, one such route immediately springs to mind, distasteful though it may be: I could start writing rough drafts of my works. This is a notion I've long resisted, going back to my junior high school days. Slowly and methodically I've always written, with a sense that if you're going to do something you should bloody well do it right the first time. What a silly idea rough drafts are, then; why would one choose to write a worse sentence than what one was capable of? Now though I must face up to the painful possibility that they had the right of it all along; that my insistence on perfectionism came at the cost of not just my time, but the very perfection I sought. One must appreciate life's little ironies, mustn't one?

So is that it then? I "simply" need to write faster? But as anyone so afflicted as I will know, there's nothing simple about it. Many are the times where facing a deadline, I've tried to force myself to write faster, and many are the times that I've failed. No, if I do succeed in writing rough drafts it will be something I learn to do, and only after upending years of well-entrenched habit. To go back to drawing, it does no good to tell an artist to use broad, sweeping strokes - you must teach them how to do it! (This, it just now occurs to me, might be the sort of thing that you learn in a writing classes. What a notion, no? That professional educators would have something to say on teaching a skill? Utter nonsense, I'm sure. I'll stick to my armchair musings, thank you very much.)

Have I convinced you, then? Have I convinced myself? I can't say for certain. I remain rather attached to my own style of writing, of course - for all its flaws it did produce this sprawling work, after all. Yet if most great authors follow a write-then-revise strategy, and I suspect they do, surely it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that I know better than they.

And so this is where I leave you: with some interesting ideas presented, but no real resolution as such - just a possible direction for future research, as it were. Hopefully the seeds of further discussion and thought have been laid, though. Oh, and if you were wondering just how slow of a writer I really am, well...let's just say that if I added up the hours to write this piece, I suspect the number would have two digits. And the first digit would not be a one. As I said, Christopher Hitchens I am not.

Gods though, if it wasn't fun. I thoroughly enjoyed writing this, I really did. If I don't love writing, I at least have a well-nurtured crush on it. And after so long apart it was really high time that writing and I started spending more time together. Quality time I mean, not the businesslike meetings we have when I need to produce another progress report. This was one of the reasons I started the blog: a chance to write for leisure (the other being to expose you all to my dazzling wit, naturally). And now I find myself quite looking forward to starting on my next post - an encouraging sign, I think. Of course, choosing a topic to write on will require careful consideration and deliberation. It's never a good idea to rush into such things.

After all, I don't write essays lightly.


  1. Addendum: if for some arcane reason any of you are interested in the drawing-related aspects of this post, it was mostly taken from a series of articles I've been reading on learning to draw. The picture and youtube video were taken from the most recent article, linked here:

    That one has backlinks to the earlier articles. Just want to give credit where credit is due.

  2. I ask permission to use this in my research proposal: "And so this is where I leave you: with some interesting ideas presented, but no real resolution as such - just a possible direction for future research, as it were."

    Also, I wasn't mentioned.

  3. Granted. And weren't you? Why, just look at letters 1, 3, 8, 48, 92, and 148 of the post. Pretty obvious I thought.

  4. FYI...when I was reading this, I felt like I was racing and tumbling along with your ideas and thoughts....."fluidity". I loved it.