Saturday, July 27, 2013

`The Stutterer is a Born Stylist'

In expansive moods, writers speak of words “flowing,” as in water, blood and sewage. Here’s a trade secret: Even on a good day, good writers stammer on the page or screen, and then clean up the mess. More than twenty years as a newspaper reporter left me fast and fluent but sloppy, at least in the first draft. By nature I’m fussy. I clean up as I go, correcting typos and solecisms along the way (one of the enduring gifts of word processing over typewriting). At the end I do a final mopping up, always with the goal of precision and concision, always with the knowledge that I’ve missed something. At that point, I’m a taker-outer, seldom a putter-inner, a Beckett not a Proust. E.M. Cioran writes in The New Gods (trans. Richard Howard, University of Chicago Press, 2013): “The more we stammer, the more we struggle to write better. Thus we take revenge for not having been able to be an orator. The stutterer is a born stylist.” 

An honest writer strives for articulation, not approximation, the right fitting of word to thought. Few of us can do this spontaneously. There seems only tenuous connection between conversational and written fluency. Consider some writers who stuttered: Charles Lamb, Charles Darwin, Henry James (though not in French), Machado de Assis, Elizabeth Bowen, John Updike – each a rare stylist (and little more in Updike’s case), each prolific. Style, Cioran suggests, is compensatory. If you can’t speak fluently, write artfully. William Dean Howells said he found in his friend Henry James’ style “perpetual delight in his way of saying things.”

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