Sunday, May 26, 2013

`Constraining His Attention to Every Line'

A young writer is working for my wife and I’ve had occasion to read some of her raw copy. It’s not bad. You sense she feels at home in written language, as many writers never do, though her sentences tend toward clunky earnestness relieved only by patches that sound too colloquially conversational. Experience and encouragement will probably smooth things out. I date my own facility with written language to a point five years into my newspaper career. I was reporting on a spectacular crash between a semi-truck and a horse trailer on an interstate highway in east central Indiana. The driver lived but several horses did not. The reporting and writing flowed with a seasoned spontaneity as they never had before. Moments before sending the story to the editor, I read it aloud – quietly, of course, under my breath, and heard no “clams,” as a jazz pianist might say. That remains the reliable test – a sounding in the inner ear. That has been my only suggestion for this young writer. 

I’m pleased to find a retroactive endorsement of my method in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1913). Butler refers to Molière’s practice of reading his work aloud to the housemaid.  Butler dismisses the idea that Molière sought to “make her a judge of his work” – that is, turn her into a literary critic. Instead, Butler says he read to her because 

“…the mere act of reading aloud put his work before him in a new light and, by constraining his attention to every line, made him judge it more rigorously. I always intend to read, and generally do read, what I write aloud to some one; any one almost will do, but he should not be so clever that I am afraid of him. I feel weak places at once when I read aloud…” 

I’ve never been that clever.

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