Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Writer's Tools (II)

Writer's tools (II)

The Wonders of Writing Well

To complement my previous post, which delineated some common writing mistakes and how to avoid them, this post focuses on some common writing successes. These are things that work to connect with the reader and keep them reading. Some are of course just the converse of the points laid out in the previous blog, and when they are, I elaborate to clarify. And, again, subtleties can be debated (though I'd argue the principles are ironclad) and, no, I don't always accomplish these in every work; but I do work at it.

Telling an Old Tale in a New Way: We writers usually tell an old tale; the only reason we didn't quit at Shakespeare (in the West, anyway) is that the world changes, people change (to a degree), and old messages need new context and new telling. Casting wisdom in a new mold lets you communicate that wisdom with modern people. This isn't easy to do, but it's one of the main reasons we keep writing.

Taking the Reader to New Place: Many people do not have the luxury to travel the world, or can't or won't travel across town or even down the street. A good writer can take the reader anywhere. It's not easy, and it requires certain tools and methods, but there are many reasons to do it, one being the same reason to travel; to see things from a different perspective. Breaking a reader out of the bubble of daily time and space--and you can tell you've done it when they tell you they felt like they were right there in that new world--is tremendously rewarding for both writer and reader.

Exploration: This is very similar to Taking the Reader to a New Place, but, in some way I haven't yet sorted out, it's different. I feel this is more motivational; it doesn't necessarily have the function of place-setting for an ancient tale, it simply stimulates the reader to see, and maybe even do. This kind of writing is often somewhat breathless. Dozens of examples rise to mind; here's one from Craig Childs' superb book, The Way Out, in which he describes his exploration of a flooded cavern in the Grand Canyon: "Our headlamps brushed the ceiling, showing a few passages. We went up. Each of us tried a different route, climbing through dust and pieces of rubble. I ascended a chimney, emerging into a room the size of an aircraft hangar. Perhaps seventy feet tall and over a hundred feet long, its ceiling was a lifted dome, its floor a garden of waterfalls and pools. Darkness ate my beam of light toward the back. A quarter-mile into a desert cliff, beneath two thousand feet of solid rock, inside the belly of the mother, was this: a buried grotto with the broken plumbing of a spring sending water everywhere. As I walked, my light took on altering values, passing through swift water, still water, deep water, sheeting water, plumes of mist, and shiny, wet stones. The river ran the width of a street.. That makes me want to drop everything and explore the caves of the Grand Canyon. That motivates me into action, if 'only' charging me for my own projects. This writing, contrary to elemental physics, generates energy from apparent nothing. Exploration can take place in many domains--mine is largely that of the physical universe--but, I think, you get my point.

Revealing the Truth / Exposing Complexity: Presumably readers want clarity, or at least some kind of understanding (at least, the readers I want to communicate with). A writer has the potential to expose truth because reading takes more time and attention than listening to a sound-bite. In John Steinbeck's daily journal he wrote, about taking time with his writing to expose truths, "The human mind, particularly in the present, is troubled and fogged and bee-stung with a thousand little details from taxes to war worry to the price of meat. All these usually get together and result in a man's fighting with his wife, because that is the easiest channel of relief for inner unrest. Now--we must think of a book as a wedge driven into a man's personal life. A short book would be in and out quickly...A long book, on the other hand...instead of cutting and leaving...allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge...When the wedge is withdrawn, the tendency of them mind is quickly to heal itself exactly as it was before the attack. With the long book...when the wedge is finally withdrawn and the book is set down, the mind cannot ever be quite what it was before." While plenty can be said for shorter forms, such as short poetry, I think what he was getting at there is the time it takes, in some forms of writing, to clarify. Again, yes, short works can well wash and make clear, but, again, the point--whatever the form--is clarity and the exposure of complexity.

Reminding the Reader of Dignity: The world, as I feel it, shaped largely by commerce, leaves us little dignity; great power lies in the hands of those who constrain our choices, and unless we're careful to protect our own dignity, we are defined by our consumption, we are simply consumers (you can see a clip of how I feel here). Writing in a respectful way reminds us of human dignity. If that is too much social commentary for you, you might want to read someone else. I'm leaning a lot on Steinbeck right now, and here I will use him again: "I intended to make [some of his writing]sound guileless and rather sweet, but you will see in it the little blades of social criticism without which no book is worth a fart in hell." This is very important to me. About it, Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote, "The airplane is a means, not an end. One doesn't risk his life for a plane any more than a farmer ploughs for the sake of the plough. But the airplane is a means of getting away from towns and their book-keeping and coming to grips with reality."

The Crystallization of a Worldview: This is entirely for the writer; the writer, presumably wishing to communicate something clearly--even if it's uncertainty--requires something of a comprehensive worldview; in German, the word weltanschaung, literally translates into world-view, but carries something more organic and expansive that I can't quite outline; it is more a feeling than a statement, a feeling that suffuses everything a writer writes. This worldview is part of one's voice as a writer. Writing, putting your words down in some durable form, forces you, at least in the moment, to assemble the building-blocks of a worldview. This view can change as the world and the writer changes, of course, but having these worldviews, and knowing which ones came before, and even how the one-at-present may be changing, is important to clarity and honesty as a good writer.

As ever, all material © Cameron M. Smith, 2010

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