Recently in Writing Category
In a recent piece of light reading, I stumbled, almost literally, across this sentence.
"A stink beetle marched purposely through the dust on some mysterious errand, becoming a little black dot as it went off and disappeared. "
Let us leave aside for the moment the question of whether any animal, let alone an insect, can be said said to have, in any meaningful way, purpose in what it is doing. Surely, if it cannot, the anthropomorphic sense of the human intellect can impose purpose on what is seen. It is a sentence like this, random, perhaps a little lazy, that disrupts what John Gardner was wont to call "the vivid and continuous dream." Indeed, upon stumbling over it, I came out of the description of the scene (so thoroughly that I had inordinate trouble relocating the sentence in the book) and thought for a while about "purposely." Is that even a word? If it is a word, should it be? What purpose does it have as a word that "purposefully" does not fulfill. Is it an adverbial appendage to indicate "on purpose," in which case, why? The fewer adverbs, the better in most prose, and this one strikes me as particularly pernicious, seeking to circumvent clearer and more careful articulations of the same idea. Adverbs reek of lazy writing. And in this case, after questioning "purposely" I had to wonder about a stink beetle marching. Had I not stumbled over "purposely," that stink beetle could have marched into the obscurity so richly deserved, as his only purpose was to give us an indication of passing time. But now, I wondered whether it was possible for a beetle to march, and if one could march what might that look like given six legs, and what might be the beat of such a march, "hut, two, three, four, five,six" or more waltz-like with a rhythm that doesn't seem to trial off to nowhere, "hut, two three, hut, two, three."
And so I was drawn out of the scene and into the world of bad grammar and its surreal possibilities.
It is the careful editor's work to assure that this does not happen to the reader. I don't care how popular, how influential, how best-selling the author, they can all use help from time to time to reshape the prose and make it meaningful and powerful. And in this case, all that was required was to use the proper adverbial form--"purposefully." By this simple alteration the beetle marches his way off the page and out of the reader's mind. Oh, perhaps the real pedant and stickler would question the marching, but for that person there is nothing to be done but to encourage him to retire to the well-padded chambers of the prose of Henry James where every article is fraught with meaning, every comma considered, withdrawn, reconsidered and inserted again. The dutiful editor need not trouble him- or herself with such a reader--they are self-selecting and would not choose a book of modern prose in any case.
I have now raked poor Preston and the momentary inattention of his much-overworked editor sufficiently to make the point. It takes only a small slip for the reader to be drawn out of the vivid and continuous dream, and if your story is not compelling, they may never be drawn back in again. I only hope that when my book goes to press I have the most vigorous, meticulous, and careful editor available. There is much to be said for the naive eye that sees what is written, not what is meant.
It is probably different for other writers, but where I feel most vulnerable, most at stake, and most exposed in writing is in fiction. A step I took recently just brought home how true this is for me.
Poetry is almost all artifice. It is so highly stylized and smoothly polished that the personal element is nearly thoroughly disguised. What the reader is exposed to is sheet artifice, verbal fireworks, or highly compressed verbal energy. The poem may explode, it may inflate, it may do any number of things--it may reveal personal moments, but they have been sharply curtailed by the point and purpose. My poetry exposes me to almost no risk. Does anyone really think that Alan Ginsburg is one tenth as interesting and lively as his poem "Howl" would have one think? And what of Keats and Blake? Even Sylvia Plath, whose poetry was intensely personal manages to set the personal at a great ironic distance most of the time (read "Lady Lazarus" or "Daddy." The poet is not on display there--the language is.)
Non-fiction poses few hazards because you pick and choose what you write about in such a way that you reveal what you care to reveal, which means, in essence, you reveal nothing at all. The intimate memoirs, the auto-biographies, the telling personal exposes--all tell you exactly what the authors would have you know about themselves.
Fiction, on the other hand, is dangerous. You pick and choose your stories. You write your story lines. But there is always the danger that the story will get away from you--that you will stand exposed because you have pressed yourself out of it the way you do in a poem. Fiction is a case of "give 'em enough rope." Nearly every author stands exposed in his or her fiction. The interesting fact is that they do not stand exposed in the way most people think they do. The narrator or events is almost never the author. But there are undercurrents, little things that even in the fourth, fifth, and sixth drafts of a work the author doesn't notice--but these tell-tale signs are there for any astute reader to observe and decipher. Or so it seems. The likelihood that anyone will intrude upon the correct understanding of a personal symbology is infinitesimal. But because fiction is the telling of tales, and the details of the tale almost dictate themselves, and because there is refinement, but not refinement of the type that goes into poetry, and because there is selection of detail, but not of the same type that goes into nonfiction prose, each chose lays bare something of the author who penned the work.
Or so it seems to me. But then, that may be the result of the fact that fiction has led me far closer to the truth than either nonfiction or poetry have ever done. Poetry has brought me into the halls of beauty and nonfiction into the realm of sheer skepticism; but fiction gets in under the radar and I find myself "surprised by joy" and awakened to the reality that lies under the event. And this happens whether or not the author intended for it--I see a small glimpse of eternal Truth in every well-crafted piece of fiction. And, perhaps circularly, this may be because of the sacrifice the artist makes in laying him or herself bare in such a way. The defenses are still locked in place, but like a fence now, their outlines are observable and a fence can be scaled, pulled down, or dug under.
Whatever may be the case, my fiction is one place where I feel terribly exposed. And that, for the most part, is why none of it shows up here, nor is ever likely to. Eventually, I hope it will make it into print, securely bound behind the paper covers of an anonymous book--a entity I formed, but which now has a separate life. But all of that is about courage.
The author's main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern. It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should so write that his reader not only may, but must, understand.
For me Ambrose Bierce was always a mixed bag. Still is. While there is much to commend the opinion above, by its strictures much of what we call literature from the Ancient Greeks to the present day would not exist. The writer writes to be understood, but also to mean beyond the page--one cannot circumscribe the connotations of ever word, and thus there are times when one cannot obey these dictates in their strictest form.
Some years ago, I was in a writing group with three other very talented writers. Together we hit upon the idea of writing a short novel for a new market of "dime books" in supermarket chains. The novels were to be less than 50,000 words in length and could be in any number of genres.
The four of us sat down and picked a favorite plot--The Count of Monte Cristo--to redo as Science Fiction. (Yes, yes, I know it had been done before--but we do well to recall Ecclesiates dictum, "There is nothing new under the sun.") We outlined the plot and then assigned each person a group of chapter to do, passing the manuscript around one to the next. Well, as it transpires, what we had to say could not be said within the constraints of 50,000. (Well, we should have gotten a clue from the length of the source, shouldn't we?) At any rate we continued to work on it.
After I moved away from Ohio, the group more or less dissolved. The novel lay dormant for a few months and then I took it out and substantially rewrote it after trying to interest the others in completing it. Only one other was interested. I rewrote the novel substantially. She did some touch-up stuff. And then years passed.
A few months ago, she wrote to ask for the odd straggler file she wouldn't seem to find and recently wrote to say that she has submission letter and other information ready to go. She's chosen a couple of publishers to start and if one doesn't take it, she'll send it to the next immediately.
I'm excited. I thought the work was worthwhile some years ago. I still think it is. I've always lacked the necessary stick-to-it-tiveness to force it through the long process of publication. But I can see doing this in tandem--contributing to it as it were.
So I ask your prayers that our novel is well and gently received, even if not accepted for publication. I pray that we all learn something from it and from this experience I have something to share with you all.
Fledgling writers are often given the very good advice to "write what you know." The problem is that what one knows and knows well could very well be harmful to others. I discovered that as I set out upon a recent writing journey from which I share the following excerpt because I do not think it will go any further. The piece I share is not harmful, but some of the rest might well be. People who know me well might read it and think that they are being written about, and nothing could be farther from the truth, and yet people will see what they will see. So as discretion is the bitter part of valor (to quote Philip Jose Farmer), I think I do better to share only this relatively harmless excerpt.
It was into this fray that one day in late June I unsuspectingly wandered. I had been working on my Ph.D. in paleobiology--my particular subject of study was the functional morphology of seive-like plates that constitute one of the most identifiable of the disagreggated parts of an extinct relative of modern-day starfish. But, alas, my funding ran out and I had only one possibility--and a rather dismal one at that. The State Geological Survey needed coal resource mappers. It paid a buck more than minimum wage and involved weeks away from wife and soon-to-be child. But, whatever it took to keep body and soul together. More daunting than the summer prospects was the seeming perspective on the rest of my life. I was looking out over the increasingly dismal vistas of academia, knowing with a fearful certainty that I was destined for a soul-crushing eternity of teaching undergraduates who came to us as the deplorable product of what we laughingly call an educational system. All ths while balancing a rich array of grant-writing, research, and political backbiting and infighting that made the U.S. Senate look live a haven of serenity and equability. It little mattered that my advisor seemed to wear it very well and manage without much expensive therapy or extensive and inventive recreations of himself through padded CV and bogus nominations and awards.