Monday, September 17, 2012

`Do It Well'

I have no jealously guard theories about writing. It seems a practical matter. I recognize the lousy stuff, as well as the good and exceptional, my own and others’. I have no how-to rules. I know regular practice helps and pretentiousness, gassing about something I know little or nothing about to impress readers and myself, does not. I prefer precision to vagueness and concision to expansiveness. I like writing with energy, a quality I recognize but can’t always describe. Revision is gospel. Prairie Mary writes, with more assurance than I can muster: 

“Writing without thinking is just wandering, free-associating, but some people have such a strong subconscious arrow of intention that it’s writing anyway. That’s preparation, often valuable, but it’s not final product.” 

The first part of her first sentence rings true. When young, I tried practicing a species of automatic writing, following a trail of verbal drool. I ended up with surrealist tedium, just as the Surrealists did. Not that the unconscious is without worth. When I write with care, unexpected words, sounds images always show themselves. They appear, but then I evaluate them. They temper and sometimes make richer and more interesting the rational thought I started with. But the decision is mine and it must always be ruthless. The “first-thought- best-thought” school of composition is pure adolescent delusion. A writer too in love with his own words is no writer at all. If my understanding of writing could be distilled so as to fit on a bumper sticker, the words would be YvorWinters’: “Write little; do it well.”


Jonathan Chant said...

Sound advice. Thank you.

Bruce Floyd said...

The below are merely speculations that come to mind when I read today's posting. I sense, hardly more than a velleity--I possess no hard data--that "great" writing comes to a superior writer in the process of composing, the writing itself leading to wonders and beauty unfound and unknown until that moment. So . . . . .

A few days ago I read some in Denis Donoghue’s book “Speaking of Beauty.” He quotes a passage from Tourneur’s “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” and then he quotes what Eliot says of the passage in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Here’s the passage quoted and then what Eliot has to say about it (Eliot thinks it one of the most beautiful passages in Jacobean literature); after the passage and Eliot’s comment on the passage I will quote what Donoghue says:

And now methinks I could e’en chide myself
For doting on her beauty, though her death
Shall be revenged after no common action.
Does the silkworm expend her yellow labours
For thee? For thee does she undo herself?
Are lordships sold to maintain ladyships
For the poor benefit of a bewitching minute?
Why does yon fellow falsify highways,
And put his life between the judge’s lips,
To refine such a thing—keeps horse and men
To beat their valours for her?…

In this passage (as is evident if it is taken in its context) there is a combination of positive and negative emotions: an intensely strong attraction toward beauty and an equally intense fascination by the ugliness which is contrasted with it and which destroys it. This balance of contrasted emotion is in the dramatic situation to which the speech is pertinent, but that situation alone is inadequate to it. This is, so to speak, the structural emotion, provided by the drama. But the whole effect, the dominant tone, is due to the fact that a number of floating feelings, having an affinity to this emotion by no means superficially evident, have combined with it to give us a new art emotion. . . .that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations, meanings perpetually einegeschachelt into meanings, which evidences a very high development of the senses, a development of the English language which we have never perhaps equalled. [I had to look up the German word. It means “packed” or “incased.”]

Says Donoghue:

Presumably an “an art emotion” is one that arises not from personal circumstances but from expressive possibilities the artist has discovered in the particular practice of his medium. Tourneur discovered such an emotion in the act of writing, not prior to that in an act of feeling.

What all the above means, I don’t know. I guess at it’s meaning. I’m guessing that, say, Shakespeare, in the heat of composition, discovered something that affects us deeply (his words, the way he says something) and might make us feel what he never did. What he wrote somehow just showed up, came from his labors of trying to write a play. He just found himself writing “discandy” or “spanieled.” I’d go so far to say that when Shakespeare wrote his great soliloquies, he had no idea, nothing specific, of what he was going to say. He’d write, compose, work hard, and figure that in the struggle to put words on the paper the beautiful words, those beautiful juxtapositions, he’d just find them. I am almost prepared to say that anything Shakespeare felt deeply and tried to express would not measure up to what he wrote when he was merely working. Of course Shakespeare uses form, but creates from that which has already been created.

Anonymous said...

I REMEMBER the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech.

Ben Jonson on Shakespeare.