Tuesday, 17 December 2013

A note on writing: inspiration and asceticism

An odd thing about writing. Normally I begin to write after some particular idea has occurred to me in a moment of inspiration – let us call this idea x. So I sit down to write. I start building up a picture as a backdrop to x. Sometimes I begin with x and sometimes I end with it. It is either the theme which I am developing or the goal towards which I want to lead the reader. Ideally, readers will feel they are discovering x all by themselves. As I am writing, things start to develop in unexpected ways. A certain emphasis emerges which I hadn't anticipated. Certain things turn out to be dull when put to paper, so I find myself gravitating away from those things and towards other things, more solid and interesting.

Then when I have finished a draft I go back and edit it. I find the weak generic verbs and replace them with stronger ones. I delete most of the adjectives (adjectives being a particular weakness of mine). I look for places where I have used two nouns or two verbs instead of one (since nothing enfeebles a sentence more than indecision over nouns and verbs). I delete digressions, anything that might distract from the effect that I am trying to achieve.

Last of all – here is the odd thing – just when I think it is finished, I discover a glaring weakness that I had not noticed before. It is x. There it is, standing there like a bit of old scaffolding, once necessary but now quite useless. It draws attention to itself. It obscures the view. It does not belong here anymore. Here comes the hardest part. Here comes the decision that will determine whether the writing is any good or whether it is another mediocrity. Often for sentimental reasons I cannot bear to get rid of x. This is a spiritual failing and it produces failed writing. Sentimentalism can be useful at the start of the writing process, but ruthlessness is necessary at the end. It takes courage to delete poor x, beloved x. But I have to do it. I have to expunge it, every last trace of it, not only killing it but burying it too. Nobody but me should know that x ever existed. Only then is my job done.

This, as I understand it, is the writing process: inspiration plus asceticism. An inspired idea is not worth the paper it's written on unless it is subjected to a merciless asceticism.

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