The Art of Writing: Quirks and Perks

Image by Geetanjal Khanna https://unsplash.com/collections/510695/hands?photo=8CwoHpZe3qE

Here’s the author of The Martian Chronicles and the classic Fahrenheit 451on where and how to find what to write about.

Quote: We all are rich and ignore the buried fact of accumulated wisdom.
— Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

This could be said of most aspects of our lives, not just writing. Even the tiniest experiences can be mined for gems and insights. A paragraph down, Bradbury elaborates.

From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educated myself as best I can. But, lacking this in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it had observed when I thought I was sitting this one out.
We never sit anything out.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

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Style: Quirks and Perks

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzegerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use language, reveal something of their spirit, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.
— E. B. White, An Approach to Style in Strunk & White

White puts it so plainly, so delicately. Only skilled writers show their spirit, their capacities, their biases because their expressive medium is no longer cluttered by ungainly turns of phrase and forced plot devices. Don’t his words make you want to reach that increment in writing where you too have style? (Not to say that you don’t already.)

White also reaffirms that hiding behind words is not possible: the better you write, the more each word says about who you are.

Perhaps I will now commit sacrilege—if so, please avert your eyes and ears, and click away—by placing alongside one of the most timid and decorous writers, E. B. White, the complete opposite: one of the most brash and indecorous men, Charles Bukowski.

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Asylums as Refuge: Dispersing the Gloom

musicophiliaI associate neurologist and author Oliver Sacks with serene-laughter. Don’t ask me to define the term. The best I can say is: look at the image of him that appears on the cover of his book Musicophilia.

I read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat a long time ago, so I do not remember whether he employed magnificent figures of speech, or merely decent ones. But I do remember that his case-studies were not oppressive, despite the seriousness of the conditions he described. The New York Times called him the poet laureate of medicine for a reason.

After two heavy books, Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House, I decided to find a fresh, uplifting voice on a similar topic. I settled for Asylum : Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitalsby photographer and architect Christopher Payne, and with an introduction by—you guessed it!—Oliver Sacks. It was published as an essay in the New York Review of Books, under the title The Lost Virtues of the Asylum. 

You see where the title is going.

Ideally, I would quote the introductory paragraphs here, then dissect their arguments below, but the post would become too cumbersome. Instead, I urge you to read the first few paragraphs of the NYR page  to feel the power of his argument, before having me ruin its effect.

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To Be Sane Amongst the Insane

Nellie Bly, portrait

Nellie Bly (Wikipedia)

New York, September 1887. Twenty-three-year-old journalist, Nellie Bly (real name: Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) has agreed to go undercover in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum and write a report about her experiences for the New York World. After her employers promise that they will somehow get her out, she is left to find a way in. At the time, to be sent to an asylum, a judge had to declare you insane, after two physicians agreed you were of unsound mind. Nellie fears she cannot fool them.

It proves to be easier than she thought.

Here is an excerpt from her report Ten Days in a Mad-House (my emphasis).

Quote: But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.

Just to be clear: this is non-fiction.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Fear of the paradox.

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Writing: Quirks and Perks

It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.
— E. B. White, Approach to Style in Strunk & White

 

bird

Fly free

 

In other words, stop trying to imitate J. K. Rowling or Stephen King; their duty is to themselves, your duty is to yourself.

A bit of motivation for all those (in the complement of Rowling and King) who are planning to write this weekend.


Reading recommendations

  1. The Elements of Style, by William I. Strunk and E. B. White. 
  2.  Essays of E. B. White, by E. B. White.
  3. My other two blog posts on White’s work: Avian Black Humour and Rosebuds Bow Courteously.

The Daffodil and the Preserved Prunes

Quote: His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes.

That’s Christopher Morley writing in his essay, Thoughts on Cider, taken from his collection of humorous essays, Pipefuls (1920). In the Quote, Morley is referring to a poet called Dove Dulcet. A bit of internet snooping suggests that Dulcet may have been Morley’s pseudonym, or that Dulcet may have been a literary agent. (Let me know in the comments if you know the answer.)

The Quote tickled my fancy in more ways than one. There’s the minor mystery of who Dove is; there’s the minor question of what exactly is meant by a girded spirit; there’s the poor daffodil with unrest in its soul, and the poor tin of prunes brewing riot within its walls.

I sought to explain the girded spirit by referring to the context of the Quote.

Dove is one who has faced many and grievous woes. His Celtic soul peers from behind cloudy curtains of alarm. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago fume in the smoke of his pipe. His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes. He sees the world moving on the brink of horror and despair. Sweet dalliance with a baked bloater on a restaurant platter moves him to grief over the hard lot of the Newfoundland fishing fleet.

I was left with a sense of: spirit girded by sorrow and discontent.

But the daffodil! Yes, I agree, girded spirit or not, who could accuse a daffodil of such subversion? (Tinned fruit has always been suspicious, I’ll give him that.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Shock tactic.

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The Ideal Reader: Quirks and Perks

The ideal reader wishes both to get to the end of the book and to know that the book will never end.
Alberto Manguel, A Reader on Reading

In the chapter titled Notes Towards the Definition of an Ideal Reader, Manguel lists around seventy, sometimes contradictory (or paradoxical?), statements about the ideal reader. He’s onto something.

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Similes and Smiles

Photo by ryan baker

In The Quantum and the Lotus Matthieu Ricard speaks about meditation, and how the effect of meditation on the mind can be described.

Quote: For example, some authors say that thought is initially like a frothing waterfall, then like a stream with occasional eddies, then like a large river with the odd ripple running over it, and finally like the ocean, whose depths are never disturbed.

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two seemingly disparate objects. It describes by analogy. The word simile itself comes from the Latin word like, and used to also mean likeness, resemblance, similarity (in examples such as: there is no simile between the two). Imitation is a basic learning mechanism. Our acts, words, ideas are first seen, repeated, then modified by circumstance or will. We start by emulating our parents, our friends, our teachers; later on we emulate ourselves, learning and improving on what we have done. The mutual similarity and the gradual alternations of our actions allow for (a perceived?) continuity of personality.

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Swirling Sahara and an Apricot Whoosh

Quote: White clouds shoot out in all directions, in a dust storm of flame, a gritty, swirling Sahara, burning from gray-white to an incandescent platinum so raw it makes your eyes squint, to the radiant gold so narcotic you forget how to blink.

This is Diane Ackerman describing a night launch of the space shuttle in her wonderful non-fiction book A Natural History of The Senses

Photo by Sugar Bee, sourced from Unsplash.

It has become trite to label a book wonderful, as if the word has been bleached of meaning, and left only with a wash of lukewarm approval. A shame. I rather prefer and, in this case, mean:  full of wonder; such as to excite wonder or astonishment; marvellous. Truly.

Let me dole out a bit more of her prose, as precious proof, how non-fiction can stir an image as much as fiction can. The Quote above continues as follows.

The air is full of bee stings, prickly and electric. Your pores start to itch. Hair stands up stiff on the back of your neck. It used to be that the launch pad would melt at lift-off, but now the 300,000 gallons of water crash from aloft, burst from below. Steam clouds scent the air with a mineral ash. Crazed by reflection, the waterways turn the color of pounded brass. Thick cumulus clouds shimmy and build at ground level, where you don’t expect to see thunderheads.

Photo by Garrett Carroll, sourced from Unsplash

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Knowledge: Quirks and Perks

Diversity

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge.”

Luca Turin, quoted by Chandler Burr in The Emperor of Scent

(In The Emperor of Scent (2003) Chandler Burr tells how Luca Turin, a French-Italian biophysicist, originated the vibrational theory of olfaction and struggled to be heard within the scientific community. Exciting non-fiction book, lively prose, highly recommended.)

Metaphors, by their non-literal nature, are built on disparate knowledge.

Here is the full quote:

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge, and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful. Why. Because there is no such things as disconnected facts. There is only complex structure. And both to explain complex structure to others and, perhaps more important—this is forgotten, usually—to understand them oneself, one needs better metaphors.”

I agree with his viewpoint.

This week’s quotes may have been rather dark, with Richard Morgan’s mass murder, China Miéville’s ambulatory corpse, and the humour of suicidal and homicidal birds from E. B. White’s essay Mr Forbush’s Friends, but perhaps that’s alright.

All sorts of knowledge come in handy: deep and shallow, dispiriting and uplifting, morbid and pure. Indeed, staying away from the nasty, reading just about the nice, would leave us few verbal and mental tools — perhaps even leave us an unexercised imagination — with which to fight the daily melancholy of our own lives, let alone some fiercer trouble. Facing demons within the safety of literary worlds is practice, and the only kind of practice we can get before reality strikes unreservedly, untempered.

PS (added on 5 May 2017): I just noticed that Ian McEwan said in his 2002 interview for the Paris Review: “We need to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”