Wednesday, February 26

Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

Reading Kurt Vonnegut's modern classic Slaughterhouse 5 (review to come shortly) has given me huge admiration for his talent.  Here are his 8 keys to being a great writer:

1.  Find a subject you care about

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about.  It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element of your style.  

2. Do not ramble though

I won't ramble on about that.  

3.  Keep it simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were more profound.  'To be or not to be?' asks Shakespeare's Hamlet.  The longest word is three letters long.  Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, by my favourite sentence in his short story 'Eveline' is just this one: 'She was tired.'  At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.  Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but even sacred.  The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: 'In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.'  

4.  Have the guts to cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak.  But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head.  Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.  

5.  Sound like yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child.  English was the novelist Joseph Conrad's third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt coloured by his first language, which was Polish.  And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical.  I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanised tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench...  I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seems to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.  What alternatives do I have?  The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.  

6.  Say what you mean

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more.  I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say.  my teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine.  The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all.  They hoped that I would become understandable - and therefore understood.  And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music.  If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood.  So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.  Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before.  Why?  This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.  

7.  Pity the readers

Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately.  They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don't really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school - twelve long years.  So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists.  Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment.  So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.  

8.  For really detailed advice...

For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style by Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.  E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.  You should realise, too, that no would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.

I'm going to try implementing this advice when I write this week.  I'm attracted to the recurring concept he introduces of being as simple and truthful to yourself and your idea as possible.  I feel that this could be a powerful and liberating way of telling stories I really care about, but may have struggled to write about in a way I felt was "good enough".  What do you think?

Friday, February 7

Embrace Logophilia with Me

Looking back I realised I haven't done a post about words I love in ages!  It's about time to get back to the origin of logophilic bliss!  

aureole noun: the circle of light surrounding something especially around the head of someone represented as holy
beetling adjective: projective or overhanging (especially a rock or a person's eyebrows!  How random is it that they specified eyebrows of all things?  This really made me laugh but I love the onomatopoeic sound.)
cosmogyral adjective: whirling around the universe (does this make you think of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?
catoptric adjective: relating to a mirror, reflector or reflection 
emollient adjective: having the quality of softening of soothing skin
frisson noun: sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear; a thrill  (I need to learn to use this word more often, it's so fabulous.)
genuflection noun: the act of bending the knees in worship or reverance
inveigle verb: persuade via deception or flattery (not only is this word fun to say, but I can imagine contexts where I could whip it out: "stop INVEIGLING me Sharon!" etc.)
kenopsia noun: the eerie and forlorn atmosphere of a place that's usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet (I LOVE this word.  It often reminds me of schools on holidays or shopping centres after closing hours.  It's enchanting.)
miasm noun: oppresive or unpleasant atmosphere that surrounds or emanates from something
nacreous adjective: consisting of or resembling mother-of-pearl (I'm delighted there's a word for this!)
roister verb: enjoy oneself in a noisy or boisterous way
sonder verb: the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (this breaks my heart, this is so true!)
sillage noun: the scent that lingers in air; the impression made in space after someone has been and gone (what a poetic concept with an oddly unfitting word to describe it...)
verdigris noun: bright bluish-green crust or patina formed on copper or brass by atmospheric oxidation

Taking the time to leaf back through my book of words did fill me with happiness.  I must remember to do that more often!  Which of these words do you adore and what others fill your heart with gladness?  I'd love to hear what words make your poetic heart burst!

Thursday, February 6

How to enjoy a clockwork orange

Sometimes I shy away from BIG books with BIG statements. Think dystopian classics like 1984, Brave New World and The Handmaiden's Tale.  How can I enjoy a book that isn't meant for pure entertainment?  

I've found dystopian novels daunting in the past because they aren't meant for pure entertainment like so many books.  I've had to learn to slow down my consumption of entertainment in order to unlock pleasure in expanding my perspective.  

I read A Clockwork Orange.  I would like to make one thing clear before I continue: It is written amazingly.  I did enjoy it immensely as a piece of great writing aside from its content.  

And then when you add the story and themes...  Well.  Even as an anti-hero, main character Alex was still someone I could empathise with.  Through his journey I experienced a journey of learning too.

Expanded consciousness

I'm unsure if this reading experience changed my mind or if what it prompted in me was rather the ability to hold onto several different ideas without having to settle for one "true" one.  My understanding of notions like free will and freedom was certainly challenged.  Through Alex I gained insight into a perspective that resonated with me.

What then remained was for me to engage in reflection, link and connect these ideas with things around me - things I saw on tv and read in other books - and thus employ this expanded consciousness in my life.  

Damaging self-doubt

When I started reading A Clockwork Orange, I worried that my "enjoyment" would be damaged by the pressure of having to gain something from the reading.  If it's provoked so much debate over the decades, there's surely some deep stuff in there I need to understand, I reasoned.  I was daunted by the thought that I wouldn't be able to glean anything from it, and therefore be less of a reader.  

As it turned out, learning was the part I enjoyed THE MOST 

I misplaced my fears as I fell into step with the great writing.  Because I was immersed in the reading of a story, the BIG ideas that I was so daunted by came naturally to me.  This taste of learning was invigorating.

When I finished reading, I felt a deep sense of achievement.  There is something fantastic about reading a book that teaches new ideas, as if it was more than a book.  My experience was like walking out of an optometrist with new glasses - what I saw was the same old, but my perception was clearer, more informed, more vibrant.  

This thrill is something I am becoming addicted to.

Reading A Clockwork Orange was an exercise in enjoying the process of learning.  The expanded consciousness I gained within its pages has made me excited to seek new ideas and perspectives.  

Wednesday, February 5

New Bookshelves!

I've been saving up all my Christmas and birthday money from the rellies to buy two beautiful bookcases.  What do you think?

I've longed for glass-doored bookshelves for ages.  My pokey little childhood shelves used to gather so much dust that I resorted to bagging my books to preserve them, which was frankly depressing.  

My room still stinks like Ikea but every time I walk in I get to experience a flush of happiness.  I now have a (small-scale version) private library like those I've always envied in photographs!