Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Some notes on writing

I suppose I've wanted to be a writer ever since I learned to read: certainly I don't recall any time in my life in which I was not already writing or dreaming up stories to write. (The earliest story I can find begins inauspiciously enough: "Fredrick Vonhoppinstein was an ordinary person, living in an ordinary home, with a semi-ordinary family.")

All in all, I guess I've been writing nearly every day for the past quarter-century. And for me, one of life's deepest mysteries is how one can practice something so assiduously for such a long time and still be so bad at it.

But in my perpetual lust for better writing (a bit like lusting after Marilyn Monroe – you know it's pointless, but you can't help yourself), I carry around a couple of small notebooks wherever I go. This is not only to capture the skeletons of ideas before they rattle back into the dark, but also to record suggestions on how to improve my own writing.

For example, I keep a list of good words that I have never used. Can you believe I've never once used the word vociferous, or pallor, or frenetic? Or even glum? (Technically I could cross those four off the list now: but it would feel like cheating.)

I also keep a list of words or constructions or catch-phrases that I tend to use too often. This is a repository of personal clichés that I should try to avoid. But it's one thing to record them: getting by without them can be surprisingly difficult. I'm well aware, for instance, that my talk about God tends to fall back on well-worn Barthian language about God's act and event. These words were fresh and arresting when Karl Barth was writing, but they're now formulaic, a mere glazing over of the eyes. And notice that last phrase: I use words like mere and simply way too often. This can actually be a kind of manipulation, a lazy attempt to avoid the hard work of describing a precise relationship or building a convincing argument. (And as you can see from that sentence, I also use "a kind of" much too often: here, my notebook warns me that this is often "a symptom of a sloppy sentence".)

Another example: even in scholarly writing, I'm often tempted to say things like "we should" or "we must". My notebook issues a withering critique: "Just make your point without first patting the reader on the back like an old school chum. Whether or not the reader is on your side is not for you to say. Your job is to show them what you see." I hesitate to continue: my notebook is unforgiving about this sort of thing (crosses "unforgiving" off the list).

Thumbing through the notebook, I can see other handy lists: good verbs, weird metaphors, plots of short stories, interesting references about the practice of writing. I also have a little catalogue of the best stylists of scholarly prose: Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Walter Benjamin, C. S. Lewis, Michel Foucault, James Wood. (Is Wood the best living prose writer? Probably.) I've toyed with the notion of classifying these writers – a sort of prose physiognomy – on the principle that all bad writing is alike, but all good writing is good in its own way. Borges's tiny glittering ideas; Benjamin's breathless march of aphorisms; the wicked humour of Lewis's sly metaphors.

So anyhow, I thought I'd start an occasional series on writing (maybe one post each week), with observations and advice from various writers. So if you hate your own writing as much as I hate mine, stay tuned – help is on the way!

37 Comments:

michael jensen said...

Yeah - I am another theologian with an English degree...
Recently I have sought help from some professional writers to improve. I will be interested to see how that goes.

Steve said...

I recently used "vociferous" for the first time. I don't know that the sentence was quite deserving of such an excellent word, but I needed a word and it was the only word at hand.

Brian Lugioyo said...

My writing is always surprisingly sucky. Yesterday I was reading The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh. The first line in that book is a quote form P.G. Wodehouse: "I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit." Authors' whose style I have repeatedly appreciated are Annie Dillard, Dorothy Sayers, George Orwell, Chesterton, and Diarmaid MacCulloch. Thank you for this post and the forthcoming posts. I am encouraged to devote a new moleskin to the writing task.

Anonymous said...

For example, I keep a list of good words that I have never used. Can you believe I've never once used the word vociferous, or pallor, or frenetic? Or even glum? (Technically I could cross those four off the list now: but it would feel like cheating.)

Technically, you've only mentioned, not used, those words here.

(My mental notebook reminds me that I'm far too fond of the use-mention distinction--and far too ready to bring it up when it doesn't matter.)

Karl Hand said...

As a Pentecostal, I say "awesome" way too much.

But I'm ok with that.

thinkingblueguitars said...

Hi Ben and co, I wrote a whole post in response to this: http://thinkingblueguitars.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/cliche/

Dan

kim fabricius said...

So two old poets,
Hunched at their beer in the low haze
Of a common room*, while the talk ran
Noisily by them, glib with prose.

--R.S. Thomas, "Poetry for Supper"

* Thomas actually writes, "Of an inn parlour", but you'll catch my interpolative gist

Mike McVey said...

I would love for you to do a writing series.

Brad said...

This is a wonderful idea. My problem is even more so with poetry: I might get one good poem for every 50 I write. I often wonder what the ratio is for the great poets. Maybe they usually suck too?

Three of my four favorite living writers for the beauty of their language are all women: Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, and Barbara Brown Taylor. (The other, of course, is Wendell Berry.) Not surprisingly, none can get their awe of God, world, and people unstuck from their minds or words.

And I'm glad you noted Lewis (and someone else Chesterton), as these are my personal two favorite dead teachers of English. Lewis especially worries me that people don't take him seriously enough as a man of words since he wrote so much "popular" material. But he is surely one of the great wordsmiths of the 20th century.

Mich said...

Best living prose writer--Im assuming non-fiction would be Frank Deford.

J said...

Virginny Woolfe, a great prose stylist? That's about like calling Bea Arthur a great thespian.

Start with say Joe Conrad--HOD, Lord Jim, Youth, etc. Then re-read him, and his crony Stephen Crane.

Mike Higton said...

Such a series would be great. Writing is a spiritual discipline, in the proper sense of that term - the sense that involves effort, struggling with temptation, being told off by people who know better, and failure. I have a suspicion that the dark heart of the matter is the struggle to write truthfully. But I might just be saying that for effect.

Shane said...

Here's a maxim on writing I find difficult to refute:

"Clarity, Concision, Coherence: Pick two."

kim fabricius said...

I've always liked William Sloane Coffin's maxim:

"Think thoughts that are as clear as possible, but no clearer; say things as simply as possible, but no simpler."

Timothy Parker said...

Thankfully just as a correct grammar does not exist, likewise a transparent and accurate and simple way of expressing oneself exists neither.
I like the freedom we have to be both precise and slightly rangey or sloppy , depending on circumstances. tim parker

Andrew said...

"Fredrick Vonhoppinstein was an ordinary person, living in an ordinary home, with a semi-ordinary family."

I'm intrigued!

ericdarylmeyer said...

Or, as an esteemed professor of mine is known to say, "Writing is easy! Just get out a blank sheet of paper and a pen and stare at them until beads of blood start to form on your forehead."

Kampen said...

"A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about cliches: "Avoid them like the plague." Then he'd laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought cliches got a bum rap. Because often, they're dead on. But the aptness of the cliched saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliche." -Khaled Hosseini

Sean Winter said...

Ben, this is just depressing. If you think your stuff is crap, then just how crap must my stuff be?

I have interrupted lecture preparation to write this and I can tell you that writers on NT ethics constitute,as a general category and almost without exception, the nadir of prose stylists in the world of biblical studies. It is un-bloody-readable, with the possible exception of Richard Hays and Wayne Meeks on a roll.

Scott Savage said...

One of my favorite turner-of-phrases is Oscar Wilde. I haven't read much of his, but I do enjoy lines such as, "Yes; she is a peacock in everything but beauty" and "You like every one; that is to say you are indifferent to every one." He's a one liner genius!

Chris Donato said...

Brilliant. Thanks for this.

And remember, all writers are liars.

R.O. Flyer said...

Ben, perhaps that fantastic writer Mike Higton would contribute to this proposed series? What do you say, Mike?

roger flyer said...

I'm sorry. I'm still gazing lustfully at the icon of Marilyn Monroe...
Ooops, sorry son.

Marvin said...

I was amazed when I read E. Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News." The diction was so arresting; the plot, not so much. It's the only book I've read just for the phrasing.

What do you think about the phrases "I shall argue," or "I maintain" in scholarly articles? Is it necessary to announce that you're about to make a point, or should you just make one? I have a professor who sternly warned us never to do that, but everyone seems to do it anyway.

Josh said...

Beautifully written Ben !

John Hobbins said...

Ben,

To your list of excellent prose writers, I would add Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac. Among living prose writers, I wouldn't forget Marilynne Robinson. Try her recent Absence of Mind.

Steve Martin said...

I'm a pretty good righter...it's jhust my spelhing that's atrocimous.

J said...

Another great prose-meister would be....Thomas Pynchon. A screaming comes across the sky, y'all

N Hitchcock said...

Did you know that Montessori schools to this day subscribe to a theory of learning that has children write before they read? Kids actually learn to read through writing. There's something kind of Kantian about the theory that intrigues me. You know, one has to have some categories in place before properly sucking up all that good phenomena.

roger flyer said...

When I was 20, I aspired to be a novelist. I objected to Faulkner's repeated use of the word fecundity. Now I love that word. It is so fecund.

Nothing says manure and earthy and rich like fecund.

moko said...

why are j's comments so embarrassing

Ben Myers said...

Thanks to those who mentioned Marilynne Robinson — she's right near the top of my list of the best contemporary prose writers. I can't wait to read her new book, Absence of Mind...

J said...

maybe because J. keeps it real, say about the greatness of Conrad, and mediocrity of Woolf: flushed in perdido, like most tory-victorian hacks

Ben Myers said...

Hey J., I'm a Conrad fan too (and I've lost count of the number of times I've read Heart of Darkness). But the post was about scholarly prose, not fiction. You should take a look at Woolf's critical essays — they are ferociously intelligent.

J said...

Conrad penned essays as well--such as one chestnut wherein he more or less proclaimed the vast majority of belle-lettres useless, and advocated a scientific/mathematical or at least historical based pedagogy.

another great essayist would be Ezra Pound. A few paragraphs of Ez's lapidary prose make the usual PoMo--say Zizek's puerile marxist-freudian hustle--sound like seals barking.

For that matter, Bertrand Russell, while glib at times (and not exactly sympatico with Pound's classicism....or the pious) wrote tight prose..sort of Dom Perignon compared to Miss Woolf's MD 20-20 n 7-up.

One of Freedom said...

It seems like I'm always re-learning how to write. I've heard it said that a writer is just someone who has a particularly hard time writing.

(BTW I use particularly far too often!)

siersplit said...

Thanks for this,

And the picture of Marilyn Monroe...just beautiful.

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