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!

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