Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Blank Page

A couple of weeks ago, I set aside the "serious" academic reading to read Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000).

I don't usually read books about writing, despite the fact that I'm an English teacher, because I don't usually find them all that interesting or useful. (Please don't tell me that Strunk & White's Elements of Style is an exception. Yes, I've read it. I bought it years ago. I've never once used it.)

And I don't usually read Stephen King's work because I just can't handle horror.

When I say that, people look at me in shock and surprise--like, "You admit you're a wimp?"--but I would like to point out that I do read non-fiction accounts of Auschwitz survivors and victims of apartheid and former Gulag inmates. So no, not a wimp. Just not into the horror genre.   

But I give King all kinds of kudos for being a very interesting and imaginative storyteller, and someone who can obviously turn a story into the kind of writing that people want to read. (I put him in the same category as Edgar Allan Poe, actually.)

And that, in my opinion, is one of the definitions of a "good" writer.

So I was not at all disappointed with King's memoir. It is both well-told and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. He's a great storyteller, across the board, and a thoughtful writer. For critics who envision him simply churning out one thoughtless text after another, for profit: you're wrong.

King's observations about writing were interesting and insightful. In particular, he argues that writing is not something that can be approached "lightly":
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page. (105-106)
I think this assertion is a point well-taken. Often, people think that they "like to write" or "wanna write" and so they simply sit down and start writing. While there's nothing wrong with this as a feel-good enterprise or hobby, it does not make someone a writer, much less a "good" writer.

I think people who approach writing in this way assume that, whatever thought they manage to express is by definition "good," because they feel they've been "inspired" to write.

You can have inspiration out the wazoo but suck as a writer.  There, I said it.

Thinking is one thing. Writing is another. This blog is a good example of that. I've had all kinds of thoughts this year, and yet, I've been more than a little remiss when it comes to sitting down and writing them.

As Dorothy Parker once said, "The art of writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat."  Too true, Dottie, too true.

I particularly like King's overarching advice about vocabulary and sentence structure: keep it simple.

King notes that "One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones" (117). Instead, King advocates "us[ing] the first word that comes to ... mind, if it is appropriate and colorful" (118).

I would agree. If nothing else, stick the word you had in mind in there and move on. You can always highlight it with a note to yourself that you might like to find a better one later on. But go with the initial impulse, because you want that initial impulse documented and you don't want to slow your roll when it comes to writing.

Figuring out a new word for an idea you've expressed is a "revision" activity, not a "writing" activity.

The same holds true for sentence structure or style. As King points out, "simple sentences provide a path you can follow when you fear getting lost in the tangles of rhetoric" (121).

As a writer and academic, I see this particular episode of "Lost" on a regular basis. People--myself included--will often write long sentences and claim that they "need" to "say it that way" because the idea is "so complex."

But really, we do it because we want to sound "smart."

And sometimes we do. But more often, we just sound frightened and confused.

A long, meandering sentence suggests that the writer has an idea--a small one, perhaps. They think it could be a larger idea, but they aren't sure of that yet and they aren't sure how that's going to happen (if it's going to happen), so they just write and write and keep writing, even when they realize that they don't know what they're even writing anymore, much less why.

They craft a long, rhetorically twisted sentence to suggest that their idea has length and breadth when all they had was a short idea with all kinds of potential depth and possibility.

Stretching that out in a long sentence creates the equivalent of a taffy-pull. When you pull taffy, you're adding air bubbles. You want to do that with taffy, because it makes the candy lighter and chewier. 

When you pull sentences like taffy, you're also adding air. Your reader may have more to chew on, but the idea is now light and airy too.

As King points out "Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation" (128). Let go of the fear that you won't sound "smart enough" and let go of the affectation in your vocabulary, and your writing will improve because your ideas will be succinct and substantial.

Not surprisingly, King is also an advocate of extensive reading: "You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so" (147). In fact, King argues, "if you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that" (147).

I would agree. There's not much more I can add to that assertion. If you like to write, you should like to read because reading is spending time thinking about ideas and writing.

If you only like to write, but can never "find time" to read, you're kind of implicitly saying that you only like to read your own writing, and while that may be understandable, it's just not going to help you improve as a writer.

King made me laugh (with embarrassment) when he identified several of his personal pet peeves when it comes to writing:
I have my own dislikes--I believe that anyone using the phrase "That's so cool" should have to stand in the corner and that those using the far more odious phrases "at this point in time" and "at the end of the day" should be sent to bed without supper (or writing-paper, for that matter). (121)
Oh, boy. Well, at least I never wrote "That's so cool." (I think.) (God, I hope...) But those last two phrases?  I confess, I've used 'em quite a bit. Particularly on the blog.

Okay, so... note to self. Some people hate that.

Another item that sets King's teeth on edge is the use of adverbs.

For King, "Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind" (124). He argues that "they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day... fifty the day after that..." (124).

I'm generally opposed to hard-and-fast rules about whether a particular grammatical feature is "good" or "bad," so I can't get on board with King's anti-adverb stance (at least, not totally and completely) (see what I did there?), but I was glad for the jolt of sudden self-awareness.

Adverbs are terribly addictive. You can totally start out using them for one reason and generally, they'll be okay, but eventually--ultimately--you'll find yourself overusing them constantly. Unthinkingly.

So I like King's warning: "The adverb is not your friend."

Because this statement reminds me that, before I invite adverbs to the house-party that is my sentence (or paragraph), I need to think about whether I want them there. Do I have to invite them? They seem to have a habit of ending up in a drunken sprawl, barfing all over the furniture and ruining what might otherwise have been a pleasant evening. So perhaps not.

This is why reading is good for your writing. Because even if you don't agree with what you read in a fellow-writer's writing, you can learn from it.

I now pay more attention to my adverbs and, much to my surprise, I find I have to agree with King more than I thought I would. Adverbs are often a mark of timidity (rather than precision or clarification) or they serve as a kind of rhetorical flourish (i.e., affectation).

I'm still wrestling with what to do about his other pet peeve. At this point in time, I've recognized that I resort to such phrases when I'm trying to "wind down" a blog post, and I can't quite figure out how to do that.

I feel like I'm going to be pushing my reader off a small cliff when I end a post without any grand sense of wrap-it-all-up resolution, so I try to gently slide them to the edge of said cliff, in the hopes that they won't then notice the sudden drop. And yes, I now realize that, at the end of the day, this is ridiculous.

Clearly, I need to come up with a better solution.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."