Saturday, January 31, 2015

Denouement

Ladies and gents, it has been done: progress on my novel has been finalized, and my exams, thank god, are over. Results of both endeavors are yet to be received—for my novel, I am waiting for my editor’s judgement, and for my exams, I assume my professors are still grading. But for now, I am content. It always gives me a curious feeling, completing something: on the one hand, I feel great satisfaction. My personal motto is “if you do something, do it well,” and completing the task is certainly a part of that commission. And while in terms of quality, I have doubts about both endeavors, it is usually a good sign when during the aftermath, you feel justified lazing around all day, rather than fretting about the results. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t feel the need to make some kind of assessment of the (now finalized) process. This goes mostly for the novel; I have taken quite a few exams by now, but this is the first time I wrote a novel, and I feel like lessons should be drawn from it. And in many ways, I already have; I feel like I have learned a tremendous lot already in merely writing and rewriting the thing. But during the last rewrite some new considerations and ponderations flickered up on my cognitive control panel, and these, I do feel the need to weigh consciously. And thus, I am thinking, and writing, and thinking about writing, and writing about writing, and writing about thinking about writing—and, as one may expect during these mental peregrinations, getting hopelessly lost in the process.  
     The literary-minded amongst you might recognize ‘denouement’ as ‘the final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.’ This is the primary definition, and, as such, it is predominantly used as a term which refers (in one medium or another) to storytelling. However, there is also a second definition, which, more generally, defines ‘denouement’ as ‘the outcome of a situation, when something is decided or made clear.’ The etymology in this case is probably clear: it is a word which was taken from the French ‘dénouement’ (‘an untying’) wholly unaltered (except for the diacritic, if we’re being finicky about it). To unravel this thing further, the noun derives from the verb ‘dénouer’ (‘untie’), from ‘des-’ (standard negation prefix) and ‘nouer’ (‘to tie’ or ‘to knot’) from the Latin ‘nodus’ (‘a knot’). Absolutely riveting, I know. Speaking from experience, I know that linguistics can keep you tied up for weeks on end. 
   It has been about a week now, since I finished it, and during the denouement I have been putting some things in perspective. Sadly, I have to say that my novel as it is now, is not the epitome of awesome I would have wished it. For one, because it isn’t perfect (lol), but more than that, because some of its premises don’t rhyme anymore with what I consider to be ‘good literature’. Which is regrettable, but I don’t think it could have been helped. Since I started writing my novel back in 2013, I have thought a lot about what I consider ‘good literature’, and, more specifically, what kind of fiction I myself want to write. This mental odyssey has yielded some results, although I find to my annoyance that I still have doubts on a daily basis. But however my literary aspirations might fluctuate, there are some conclusions which have remained stable. As such, I have used this week of denouement to pen down a sort of manifesto, to remind myself of what I really want, and to make sure that I stick to it; during the writing process, all kinds of temptations pop up, luring the unsuspecting writer into making some decisions which they might regret later. Things which, during the kill-your-darlings stage of the process, become one hell of a nuisance. 
    I regret to say that I have given in to several of these temptations, some of which are difficult (if not impossible) to fix without bulldozering most of it. Feeling more than a little reluctant to do this, I have decided (uncharacteristically) to accept the novel’s flaws, rather than rewrite it again, and consider it a lesson for next time. Just to give you an example, here is one of my conclusions: “Your most important concern is always the story. You want to write fiction because you want to engage with real-life people, and realistic, detailed characters. Writing with abstract ideas is okay, but will only ever be secondary to writing believable characters. Fiction writing is not a way to make abstract ideas concrete, but should always stem from a desire to tell a story. It is a way to give shape to real lives, with real, contradictory, messy, incongruent people, who would only be reductions of themselves if they merely represented abstract ideas. Care of your characters should always be your first priority. People over ideas.”
    Sadly, this is something I lost sight of at several points in my story. I wanted to write with a theme, for my book to have a message, but if you shoehorn your characters into a thematic mold where they become representations of the message you want to express, that doesn’t do the character justice. Too often I found myself luxuriating in my own cleverness for thinking up complex patterns of abstract ideas which might be represented in such or such a way. And I like abstract ideas; I like playing around with them. But while you can play around with abstract ideas without getting people hurt, you can’t play around with (fictional) people and expect the same result. So I’m letting go of that by reminding myself that I want to write fiction in the first place because I love people. If you want to write about ideas, you can write an essay. If you want to write fiction, you should write about people. There are many other conclusions I wrote down, but this is number one. It is a mistake I sadly made, but one, I am glad to know, I apprehended during the denouement of this project. It is, I hope, not one I will make again. In the mean time, I am happy with the experience, and hopeful about the future. Let’s hear it for denouement...       

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Osmosis

One would sometimes forget whilst reading these blogposts, but between the writing acts, I am also a student. A student who is currently plodding her way through another exam period, which is getting increasingly tedious. This, partly due to the fact that my courses last semester were mostly of the kind you have to take but which aren’t really interesting (to me, at least), and partly because I’ve been going over the material so many times now that my vision is starting to blur at the mere view of the words. At the moment I am mostly assimilating everything into a coherent and accessible whole, which means, in reality, that I am just rereading things. The heavy memorization stage is over now, thankfully. But the heavy memorization stage did take a while, and it’s this stage which every student would no doubt like to skip. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could just read over your course a couple of times and everything would stick with you in neatly-ordered piles of knowledge? That would make life so much easier.
    ‘Osmosis’ is originally a scientific term, used in biology and chemistry to denote ‘a process by which molecules of a solvent tend to pass through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution into a more concentrated one’. It had to be mentioned. The word is more commonly (and more kindly to less scientifically gifted people) used, however, in a more general way, in which case it refers to ‘the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.’ It derives from the latinized form of the Greek word ‘osmos’ (‘a thrusting, pushing’), from the verb ‘othein’ (‘to push’). This word was adapted into French as the word ‘endosmose’, where they added the prefix ‘endo’ (‘inward’), thereby adding to the meaning so it came to denote ‘the inward passage of a fluid through a porous septum’. This form was then shortened back into ‘osmose’, and then taken over by English as ‘osmosis’. The figurative expression is easily visualizable: the ‘fluid’ as ‘ideas’ or ‘knowledge’, gradually seeping through the porous membrane of your memory. Makes sense, no?
     As students, alas, we know that osmosis is, to a certain extent, a utopia—pragmatically speaking, at least, it is impossible to learn so much material in only a couple of weeks through osmosis only. Active effort is necessary. Osmosis is, however, frequently (though not under that name) given as writing advice. More concretely, one of the things every writer will tell you to do, is to read a lot. Some will tell you to read only the best (because reading second-rate literature? ain’t nobody got time for that), and only the genres which interest you; others will tell you to read everything, in every genre, of every quality—the theory being that you can learn as much (if not more) from seeing how one shouldn’t do it. Whichever you do doesn’t much matter to me. Personally I am inclined to only read ‘good’ literature (whatever that is), though the occasional bad book will sneak in now and then (hum-hum), and of course we all have our genre preferences. But the number one rule stays the same: if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.
    I am not contesting this rule. In fact, I’m enhancing it. I think reading is the basis, but I don’t think it’s enough. The general assumption is that if you read good books by good writers, you will osmotically assimilate their qualities, and this will appear in your own writing as if by magic. Learning to write by literally copying others is actually one type of writing advice which I have occasionally encountered, and a technique which writers like Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson have actively used. Of course, writing out someone else’s writing is a much more focused process than merely reading it, and therefore I am not discarding this particular piece of advice. But just reading or just writing someone else’s text won’t make you a better writer per se. It will only work if you do it consciously.
    And this, I think, is key: as a writer it is important to read a lot, but it is also important to do so in a way that actively incorporates your reading activity into your writing activity. Don’t get me wrong: as a writer you can read purely for your own enjoyment; this is perfectly legitimate. But if you want to learn something, being fully conscious of what you’re reading is, I think, paramount. The trick is to learn how to read like a writer, and not just assume that lecture of good literature will osmotically infiltrate your brain. Reading good books certainly won’t harm your writing, but it may not necessarily do it any good. Reading like a writer requires a special degree of attention to details, and an analytical attitude. When I’m reading a piece of writing these days, and I see something I like, I often stop for a moment and think: what is the writer doing here, and why does it work? Or, conversely, what is the writer doing here which I do not like at all? The first observation is often that the vices of bad writing are easier to pinpoint than the qualities of good writing, mainly because weeding out common mistakes is usually the first thing writing guides will help you with. Determining what makes a sentence flow, or a text worth reading, is often more difficult to pull off, but as with all unattainable goals, the effort is valiant, and the goal worthy. 
    And therefore, I think, worth considering. I made it my reading intention this year to reread a lot of previously read material—both books which truly delighted me and books which didn’t so much delight, but rather intrigued me. And in doing so, I intend to be really conscious this time around as to what is going on in the text. The plot already being known to me, I won’t have to rush to the end (in case of a thrilling plot), and have more time to relish the writing. And I would like to not only do that, but also to actively analyze what I’m reading. I tend to be distrustful of osmosis. It’s a bit like falling in love, or indoctrination; you won’t realize what’s going on until it’s too late. And though I could think of worse things to happen to me than developing the ability to effortlessly absorb literary greatness, I prefer to do it consciously. Otherwise, where’s the fun, anyway? 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hwyl

And here we are again, after another year of blogging. I am once again astounded that I’ve persevered doing this, but it has been my joy and comfort for yet another year. At times when other writing activities were, if not entirely dormant, at least pleasantly snoozy, it has been a constant motivation for me to continue practicing this exhausting, exasperating, and exhilarating craft called writing. And so, after another year, the common mindset seems to expand until our memory reaches back to the beginning of this year, and we make an evaluation. Has this year been good? If yes, why so? If no, why not? Once again we go about our annual task of respectively evaluating the past and building intentions for the future. I generally like to skip the second part, because while I find evaluation useful, I have always believed that, if you want to make things happen, you shouldn’t think about them too much beforehand. If I had been feeling more anxious and less trusting about the future, I might have felt the need to make a detailed plan. But for now, I trust on a remarkable feeling which has been building inside me all year, and which I’ve been experiencing quite a lot lately. I find that I like it. 
     ‘Hwyl’ is a marvelous little word denoting ‘a stirring feeling of emotional motivation and energy’. It is an originally Welsh word (could you tell?), which was used in reference to oration—you know how the Welsh are about their bards. Originally ‘hwyl’ was a nautical term, and referred to the sail of a ship, but was then metonymically reinterpreted as a ‘course’. In the context of public speaking, ‘hwyl’ came to denote ‘a sudden ecstatic inspiration’ which carried the speaker away on its wings, supplying him with burning words of eloquence which he would never have been able to find in a normal state. When the word was taken over by the English, it gained a broader interpretation, away from the specific context of public speaking. It is still stirring, though.
      Dearest reader, I admit to some anxiety. 2014 has been a startlingly fantastic year, and I fear that, when the clock strikes twelve on the 31st, I will, Cinderella-like, lose the luck which kismet seemed to have bequeathed to me on the 1st of January 2014. The fear that my good fortunes will turn their backs to me yelling ‘JUST KIDDING’ is very real. It is also howlingly superstitious, so thankfully I know how to rationalize it. After all, my perceived ‘turn-around’ at the beginning of 2014 didn’t come out of nowhere; I laid plenty of groundwork in 2013 already, and I think I did the same for 2015. If all else fails, at least I can say I came prepared. As it is, my anxiety isn’t a crippling one, and with my rapidly expanding hwyl as a battering ram, I aspire to barrel through the door of 2015, whatever it might bring.  
     Hwyl has been nestling in my bones the past couple of months. With ups and downs, of course, but I am happy with the progress. I feel motivated, determined and focused and it’s a state-of-mind I intend to keep. In order to do that, I have delineated three purposes for the coming year: first, to finish that goddamn novel and actually (try to) do something with it; second, to do well in school. And third, to enjoy the process. 
     It is this third intention which I feel ought to be my priority, but I fear that it will probably the hardest, because many people (including myself) make the mistake of seeing their goals as more important than their happiness. Plus, ‘enjoying the process’ sounds a bit vague, doesn’t it? It’s a lot easier to imagine what one has to do to get good grades and finish that goddamn novel. But ‘enjoying the process’? It is tricky, and it will undoubtedly remain so, but I have figured out two strategies I would like to keep in mind next year. 
     First of all, I think that, to maximize my personal hwyl, one thing I should strive for in my day-to-day business is flow. ‘Flow’ is a term from positive psychology, coined by a scientist with the unpronounceable name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes ‘flow’ as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Flow is a state of complete absorption, and while you’re in it you experience a feeling of spontaneous joy and even rapture while performing the task. The trick to getting into a flow is to perform an activity which is easy enough for you to feel competent, and challenging enough for you not to feel bored. It typically happens when you’re doing something you love (I’ve had it often while writing), but it can also happen during trivial activities like doing the dishes (balancing all those plates on a draining board can be challenging sometimes). During a flow-experience you feel optimal motivation, you are energized, and hours can pass performing the activity without you noticing it. It is one of the purest ways to happiness, I think, because it is not goal-drive but solely focused on the activity itself. And I have noticed that I like focus; I enjoy the feeling of being totally engrossed in something, forgetting yourself entirely. Not that want to escape myself, mind you; in fact, I think flow experiences can boost your self-confidence, which should make spending time with yourself easier. And I think that, if I can increasingly incorporate these moments of flow in my life, that should give a great boost to my hwyl. 
     The second intention is to hunt down and eradicate that pestilential animal, expectation. Only recently I caught myself committing the same mistake I warned myself about a little more than a year ago: to expect too much. But despite my precautions it sneaked up on me more than once this year. And, having ensnared me, it tugged along its little cousin, disappointment. Because that is often the product of expectation, and dammit, I want to get rid of it. If I can just chug along my merry way without worrying too much about the future and all its promises, I know I could be perfectly happy. And any frustration about writing (“UGH, bad writers are getting published and I’m working my ass off here and why won’t anyone publish meee?”), to name just one, would be blissfully absent. It’s a very Western idea, isn’t it? When you really want something, the consequence of that is the silent (often unconscious) assumption of entitlement. Surely, you think, if I want something this badly, I should have a right to have it? People who don’t want it as badly as I do are getting it, which falls straight into the so-not-fair category. But life and fairness, alas, don’t have a very high match percentage. And while it is perfectly okay to want something, the idea that such a desire gives you the right to have it (meaning that you have a right to demand it from the world, and be justified in your disgruntlement when you don’t get it) is, to only cover the utilitarian side of things, not very realistic. And so I came up with a maxim and stuck it on the cork board above my desk. This is what it says:


It’s an extension of the flow-principle, maybe. Expectation lies in the future, while real happiness (cliché alert) can only happen in the present. And if you lose the expectation, you can be as zealous, as motivated and as enthusiastic about something as you like; it can be an active expander of your hwyl, and need never be a source of frustration. Quite a liberating realization, that. 
     But enough psychologizing; it is time for wishes. My dearest reader, I thank you once again for your loyalty if you’ve been with me for a while, and for your curiosity if you just stumbled on this blog, and made it to the end of this post. I hope 2015 will be full of hwyl, joy and tasty food. I wish you good health, interesting books and pleasant company. And this, and so much more. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Malapropism

Since my last blog post, I realize I might have given my reader the impression that I am dictatorially intolerant about mistakes. I will refrain from clobbering the aforementioned book any more than I already have, and instead would like to talk about the virtues of mistakes. And I’m not talking about the old adage, “only by making mistakes you can learn” (about which I already wrote), but about creativity. Ken Robinson said it a lot better in his TED speech, but it is by making mistakes that you can make connections nobody else has ever seen. And on the surface, these connections might seem fallacious, but when you have a closer look, you see that the fallacy might actually contain some truth. The best (and funniest) examples are instances of language creativity which spontaneously and unintentionally tumbled from your mouth despite your best grammatical intentions. There are various types of these sort of mistakes, but one of my favorites is undoubtedly the malapropism.   
     A malapropism is defined as ‘the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with amusing effect’. The word was coined in 1826, and eponymously named after a particularly funny fictional character called ‘Mrs. Malaprop’, who features in a play by Richard Sheridan, The Rivals (1775); she was known to frequently made this sort of mistake. The name itself was also carefully constructed by Sheridan, as a contraction of the French expression ‘mal à propos’ (literally ‘poorly placed’). Often mentioned as synonymous to ‘malapropism’ is ‘dogberryism’, referring to an unfortunate dunce named ‘Dogberry’ in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, who made the same kind of mistakes. It is quite a mystery why the Bard’s version is neglected in this case in favor of ‘malapropism’, as it is usually the preferred one (witness my spell-checker, who doesn’t recognize ‘dogberryism’, but approves of ‘malapropism’); I’m sure, though, that William won’t mind someone else taking the spotlight, just this once.
    Literature is chockfull of malapropisms, in the most amusing ways. Witness Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who states that “she couldn’t eat crabs or any other crushed Asians” (crustaceans). In Huckleberry Finn, Aunt Sally is spotted using a malapropism when she states that “I was most putrified with astonishment” (petrified). To give you an example from the source, Sheridan attributes the following speech to his Mrs. Malaprop: “she’s as headstrong as an allegory” (alligator). Because I am by far more informed about literary nomenclature than zoology, I find this malapropism quite approbate. Err, appropriate, of course. 
     Characters like Dogberry and Mrs. Malaprop are, of course, caricatures, and therefore rare; most of us only make these mistakes incrementally—incidentally, dammit. Sometimes, these sort of brain farts are eagerly seized by the Freudians as unconscious mental dirty laundry—often they stretch such evidence far enough to give you a wedgie. But more often they are merely funny. And sometimes, they can be oddly serendipitous. It is of the last category that I would like to record some of my past mistakes; not to give you the impression that my mistakes are legit (on account of poetic quality)—I have undoubtedly stumbled on malapropisms many a time without even realizing it. But this being the case, I have no particular memory of these instances, and even if I realized it at the time, I probably hid it somewhere in the caverns of my memory, where all the shameful ones are hiding. But leaving out the farcical for a moment, here are my two best ones:
     In a previous post I already talked about misheard lyrics, a phenomenon more aptly captured in the term ‘mondegreen’, but there is a significant overlap between mondegreen and malapropism—take away the musical context, and probably most mondegreens are malapropisms. So I will treat my brain fart as a malapropism, even though it appeared in a song. The song is fittingly christmasy; a little ditty called ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ One of the verses in this song is ‘And in our world of plenty / we can spread a smile of joy’. The last part of this sentence I at first mistakenly understood as ‘we can shed a smile of joy’. Which confused me, because there is no such expression. But when I figured out the actual lyric, I began to appreciate the misheard one. ‘To shed a smile’—that’s quite wonderful, isn’t it? When someone is crying, they say that he/she is shedding tears. When you get undressed at the end of the day, they say that you shed your clothes. Imagine shedding a smile the way you shed tears, or clothes. Not fitting in the context of the song, but I might be tempted to use it in the future. So no stealing.
     The second one is my personal favorite, and I first have to mention that it is, strictly speaking, not a malapropism. The word my brain constructed at the time is a case of neologism, and the term ‘malapropism’ is only used in reference to the misplacement of existing words. But I’m going to mention it anyway; I’m a rebel like that. The word in question is one I misread, when, once upon a dreary morning, I performed my daily walk to the ladies’ room at school, during a break in class. The bathrooms at my school, you should know, are works of art. That is, the doors are; they give it a fresh coating every year, but every year the women of Blandinia graffiti it with slogans from their respective fandoms, favorite novels, or personal philosophies. One of the things I found there one day was this:  
Now, my mobile sucks at quality pictures (no, I don’t have a smartphone, and I don’t want one), but you get the gist: there’s a big heart with a banner over it stating “hurts”; the implication is obvious. It’s the little squiggle beneath it which intrigued me, however; it says “better call a cardiologist”. In itself, a good find, but when I was confronted with it at the time, I had just walked away from a linguistics course, and my brain was still rattling with linguistic lingo. And so what I read instead was “better call a cardiolinguist”. Err, what? I blinked, then shed a smile as I saw that the squiggle did not actually say ‘cardiolinguist’. But I left the bathroom feeling enlightened, because what a marvelous word. A cardiolinguist: a specialist trained to decipher the language of the heart. It’s the kind of title any poet would like for themselves, I think. And it violently appeals to the romantic in me. So just for the record, I am claiming this one for myself as well, to rest proudly alongside ‘Grammar Nazi’ and ‘Messiah of Words’. The Cardiolinguist: a title with as much punch and effervescence as, say, ‘The Doctor’. Does this mean that I will start an advice column for disillusioned lovers? Not anytime soon. But as a writer it’s a topic you can’t escape, and in any case it’s one of interest to me, so I find the sobriquet quite apostate. 


Appropriate, dammit.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Fustian

When it comes to your vocabulary, writing is a bit like sex: it’s not about how big it is, but how you use it. Having a big one certainly helps, but if you’re stumped on what to do with it, you’re going to misfire every time. (There was way too much innuendo in there. My apologies.) The sad thing is that people who have a big one seem to be under the impression that whatever they do will be good. Well, no. Take, for example, a Julian Barnes. Before he became a writer, the man used to be a lexicographer, which basically means that he wrote dictionaries. Of course you might expect that the man has an extensive vocabulary, but when you read his books, you will see that he knows how to use them, too. Currently, I am reading a book by another Julian, who, despite his name, seems to have misinterpreted the virtues of a big vocabulary. Certainly, there are many words in there which I do not know, which is nice, because I’m learning new ones. But the sheer number of words, added to all the fancy ones he lavishly uses, makes the whole a badly-constructed bric-à-brac of rather pompous word vomit. It’s not because you’re a professor, sir, that you have a license to shamelessly parade your erudition. 
     ‘Fustian’ in its literal meaning refers to ‘thick, hard-wearing twilled cloth with a short nap, usually dyed in dark colors’. My dictionary has spoken. It is, however, more often used in a figurative sense, and ‘fustian’ becomes a mass noun referring to ‘pompous or pretentious speech or writing’. The word of the cloth has slithered into English via the Old French word ‘fustaigne’, originating itself in the Medieval Latin ‘fustaneum’, probably a derivation from the word ‘fustis’, ‘staff, stick of wood’. Which, in turn, is probably a loan translation from the Greek ‘xylina lina’, literally, ‘linens of wood’, which commonly referred to cotton. A possible explanation for its figurative meaning might be found in the fact that the fabric fustian was sometimes used to cover pillows and cushions; the implication for ‘fustian’ language is that the language is ‘padded’. Which is sort of neat.
     I could probably spend this entire blog post ranting about how bad this book is, but that won’t do me, nor my reader, nor The Other Julian (as I shall henceforth call him) any good. So I would like to talk a bit about fustian. Now, I am very much aware that I’m tottering on the brink of hypocrisy here. Because I, of all people, the Messiah of Words, have been known to use a whole range of odd and fancy words in my writing. Unashamedly so. And I don’t think I should be ashamed of it; beginning writers are often afraid to use these words, because they sound strange and don’t ‘feel’ comfortable to use yet. Of course, it’s only by using them that you can get comfortable with them, and take them up in your active vocabulary. So generally, I have no scruples about using difficult words.
    But you can take it a bit too far. Again, I have been known to teeter on the edge sometimes, and my feedback-providers have sometimes warned me for fustian. And I shall admit this guilty pleasure: I sometimes rebuild an entire sentence just for the sake of putting in that one word which I’ve been burning to use. This is quite exciting, and I have often felt a tingle of pleasure clamber up my spine when I do this. However, if it turns out redundant, I generally take it out during revision. You should not clutter an otherwise good text for the sake of simple pleasures. I can appreciate the virtues of simple pleasures, but you can take it too far. When this happens, my feedback-providers are kind enough to point it out to me. And I might feel a bit grouchy about not being allowed to use the at-the-time-perceived-to-be-marvelous word, but I am grateful to them for telling me. Because the book I am currently reading is taking it over the top, and if there is one thing I would loathe, it would be to write a book riddled with fustian.
     Whether or not your elevated language will be perceived as fustian, mostly depends on the general register of your text. Because of my academic pursuits, I flatter myself that I can write in an elevated register, and I frequently like to do so. But I also flatter myself that, when necessary, I can return to simple, straightforward language in a way that doesn’t make it sound bland. Because this is another thing about this book: the sentences with big words in them look very impressive. But when the man attempts to use simple language, it is clichéd, badly written and boring (wow, talk about smiting; I should be a literary critic). The power of writing simple lines, and writing them well, is a skill you should never neglect or underestimate, even when you do aspire to enhance your vocabulary (which is a pursuit I can only encourage, just to be clear). Because to a trained eye, it is obvious when the writer is using big words to camouflage bad writing. It can work. People are generally impressed when you showcase a big personal lexicon. But it will only work for a short time. And 450 pages of fustian, sir, are too many to save your ass. 
     I would like to think that I can do both. I can deeply enjoy an artful sentence, peppered with an uncommon word or two. But you can’t do it around every other line. The thing about uncommon words is that, at least in prose, they will attract the attention of your reader. And this is exactly the power of these words: they give you something you wouldn’t expect. But shoving the unexpected in the reader’s face every other line becomes—ironically—predictable after a while, and frankly, tiring. This is something I had to learn myself, mind you. It is always a precarious balance, and one I find it difficult to find sometimes. But what I have learned by now is that when you use so-called ‘big words’, you ought to give them space, so they can have their full effect. And—at least, if you want to be read—it is important not to lose touch with the vocabulary of your average reader, and be aware of it when you use an uncommon word. You can turn this around, of course: the writing style you adopt naturally attracts some kinds of reader, and not others, but again, this is negotiation; depending on how elevated a register you want to use, you can make certain demands of your reader (in my opinion), but you need to give the reader something for the effort. This is what I feel with Julian Barnes. Yes, he uses weird words, but he does it in a way that is moving, and not remote, and he never loses the common touch. The Other Julian, on the other hand... Writing fustian, sir, is not attractive, or sexy. At all.   

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Phraseology

I found that the most marvelous thing about learning how to write is that it’s basically a process of learning how to love something, not only the action itself, but also the object of the action. And in my experience, you typically go from appreciating big things, to small things. When I wrote my first short story I was ridiculously proud of it, even though in hindsight there was hardly a good sentence in it. But it was a good story, and that’s how my love affair with writing began. Once I had written that first story, I started developing a style, story by story, and more and more I narrowed down my attention to the smallest unit: the sentence. Rather than fretting about the story, I became obsessed with writing the perfect one. I was (and still am) dedicated to writing long, flowing, but perfectly balanced sentences. You can spot them from a mile away, a writer who loves sentences; you can feel how lovingly the words have been handled. 
     ‘Phraseology’ is defined as ‘a particular mode of expression, especially one characteristic of a particular speaker or subject area’. The word ‘phraseology’ is (ironically) actually a mistake, coined erroneously in Greek as ‘phraseologia’ in the 1550s, from the Greek word ‘phrasis’ (‘way of speaking’) and ‘logia’ (typically defined as ‘reason’, or the ‘study of’). The correct form would have been ‘phrasiology’, but alas, it was not to be. Originally the word denoted a ‘phrase book’, but at the beginning of the 1660s it started being used to refer to a ‘way of arranging words, characteristic of style and expression’. The more you know.
      One of the writers whom you can spot from a mile away as being in love with sentences, is F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read his Tender is the Night when I just started writing, and about every other page I felt like throwing the book at someone’s head—that’s how brilliant his phraseology was. A case in point: ‘On the centre of the lake, cooled by the piercing current of the Rhône, lay the true centre of the Western World. Upon it floated swans like boats and boats like swans, both lost in the nothingness of the heartless beauty.’
     I always imagine a bomb dropping after the end of this sentence. I actually felt rather put off when I finished Tender is the Night, not because I didn’t like it—on the contrary—but because I felt that I would never be able to write sentences like that. I didn’t give up, however, maybe because I felt more moved by so much verbal beauty than daunted by the job of emulating it—which, let’s face it, I’ll never be able to do anyway. Which is fine; only F. Scott Fitzgerald can write Fitzgeraldian phraseology, and that’s how it should be.  
     On the particulars of the story in Tender is the Night, I admit I am a bit unclear, partly because it’s been over two years since I read it, but also because the plot was rather vague. Which may or may not be a bad thing. Following up on something I already touched upon in my last blog post, there are writers who will tell you that story is more important. And indeed, I need to pay attention sometimes not to lose myself in phraseology and forget about the bigger picture. But while both are important, I found that there is a marked difference between a good story and a good sentence: a good story, with a good plot and fascinating characters, keeps you going. A good sentence, however, can make you stop. 
     ‘Stop and smell the roses,’ they say. This, I think, is what great literature does. Not good literature; good literature spins an interesting and compelling story which keeps you continuing on to the next chapter. But great literature can make you stop; it freezes the plot for a minute and it points a finger: look at this sunrise, at this blade of grass, at this freckle on that girl’s upper lip. And, maybe for the first time, you look, and you see it. This, I think, is what great literature can do: it makes you stop and smell the roses. Which can be quite separate, by the way, from the story itself, because a good sentence may not be relevant to the plot at all (in fact, I find that sentences that advance plot are rarely very poetical or profound; plot prefers simplicity). And, as I found with Tender as the Night, I felt like I could trust a writer with such compelling phraseology (even though I did not immediately see where the story was going), and trust that he would take me on a journey which would leave me feeling satisfied. 
     You can take it a bit too far, of course. In my family there exists a culture of reading mostly based on ‘does this sentence work’? When judging whether a book is worth reading, me, my father or my sister have been known to look at the first page and read the first sentence, and then go, “good sentence, I’ll read this book” or “boring sentence; I’ll skip this one”. This, of course, is getting really close to judging a book by its cover, although judging it by its phraseology might be considered slightly more literary. But I must make sure not to take it too far either, this love of sentences. 
    Don’t get me wrong: I think it is quite essential that you should love sentences as a writer. In general, my reasoning is that if I can trust you to build a perfectly structured, esthetically pleasing sentence, then I can trust you to do on macro-level (in terms of plot) what you demonstrated so competently on micro-level (in terms of sentence). Of course, this is a theory which doesn’t always work; there are writers who can compose exquisite sentences, but absolutely stink at plot. For the record, I am not trying to be one of those, but I admit that I would rather be a writer who writes a story with a bad plot and good sentences, than a story with a marvelous plot which is poorly executed. In fact, I think that writing guides too often pay too little attention to this: they tell you a dozen things about characterization, plotting, “show don’t tell” and God knows how many other things, but relatively few writing guides give much attention to that smallest unit in the story. Which I perfectly understand, by the way: certainly for beginning writers, it is important to think on a macro-level first, because if you have to worry about how well-formed your sentences have to be, you’ll never put a word on paper. But once you have gained some self-confidence as a writer, and don’t feel daunted to have a closer look at your writing, I think having a look at your sentences might be a good place to start. Your phraseology forms the building blocks of what a story, in the ground, is: a collection of sentences. Before you can erect a good building, you have to make sure that those building blocks are solid; otherwise it will crumble before you even finish it.   

Friday, November 28, 2014

Pabulum

The worst fear (or it should be) of every writer: clichés. In writing guides, one of the first things they will typically tell you is to avoid clichés (like the plague). Which sounds perfectly reasonable, and not as difficult as ‘show don’t tell’ or ‘find the significant detail’. It is, however, misleading. Because how do you define a cliché? According to my dictionary, ‘a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought’. This seems clear enough. The problem is that, when you put a sentence onto the page, there is a gigantic gray area in judging whether or not that sentence is clichéd. “He was as brave as a lion” is a cliché anyone can recognize, but with a lot of phrases this is not half as clear. I am, for example, quite certain that “he walked down the street” is an overused sentence in English. But does that make it a cliché? And if so, how can you avoid it without making your language incredibly artificial? Because another writing rule is to keep your language simple and natural. When I consider the difference between “he walked down the street” and “he sauntered tiredly down the cobbled boulevard”, I would have to say that the first option sounds more natural. But does that make it the better sentence? I honestly can’t say. 
    ‘Pabulum’ has been marked as ‘literary’ by my dictionary (score!), and is defined as ‘bland or insipid intellectual matter or entertainment’. It is derived from the Latin verb ‘pascere’, which means ‘to feed’, and from the 1670s onwards, ‘pabulum’ was used to refer to ‘fodder, food, nourishment’. The story of how the word came to its current definition, however, requires some cultural background. In the 1930s in America, there was a certain brand called Pablum, the brand name for a soft, bland cereal used as food (> the Latin ‘pabulum’) for infants and weak and invalid people. In a third step, the word acquired its figurative use, when, in the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew used it metaphorically to refer to ‘mushy’ political prose. Politics, it seems, has its uses after all. 
When you are engaged in any kind of writing, you might have noticed that it is sometimes difficult to balance two often repeated writing principles (the pabulum of writing rules, one might say): the quest for, on the one hand, originality and, on the other hand, simplicity. Though both are undeniably important, they are, to a certain extent, contradictory, and what your prose ends up looking like is mostly dependent on what you consider most important. And this is where writers disagree, which is how you get such a colorful pallet of writing styles in the history of literature. A Hemingway, for example, would tell you that simplicity is the root of all good writing, while a Scott Fitzgerald might advocate originality. Personally, I am more a supporter of Fitzgerald, because he tends to shake up his language now and then in ways that are surprising and new. 
    But does this mean that Hemingway’s prose is pabulum? Not in the least (if Hemingway-fans could hold their horses for a minute, please). Because originality can be achieved on different levels, and if Hemingway hasn’t revolutionized literature by his rich turn of phrase, he has certainly achieved originality, not on a sentence-level, but on a story-level. You can have a very minimalistic prose style, but still write wildly imaginative stories. In fact, some people will argue that a minimalistic style is preferable over baroqueness, because a baroque prose style which attempts to surprise the reader at every turn can sometimes detract the reader’s attention from the story. And a (prose) writer’s first job is, after all, to write a good story, no? 
    Absolutely. And I agree that sometimes, while reading a book, my brain can be in a buzz for days about a particular image or turn of phrase which I found brilliant, but be perfectly ignorant about in which context that sentence happened again. (This is an exaggeration, but you get what I mean.) I admit that I have always had an inadequate respect for plot, and almost a fetish for originality, neither of which are very good. In the desperate attempt to avoid writing pabulum, my prose can sometimes become overblown and artificial. Thank god for down-to-earth proofreaders. As a poetry fan, however, I can’t but admire a use of language which is different than the everyday. And yes, this is the kind of language which draws attention to itself, which can lead your attention away from the story for a second. Personally, I don’t mind this, but opinions about this, as stated, vary widely. I have noticed that a lot depends on context, though; while poetic or particularly original prose is wonderful, you should only use it in carefully measured dosages, because if you do it too often, your reader might get overwhelmed. If you go for the original language, you have to give it space, so it can achieve its full effect. Which means that, if you have just released a powerful image onto your reader, it might be better to let your protagonist simply walk down the street, rather saunter tiredly down the cobbled boulevard. 
    At least, this is my experience; I am sure that other writers may have very different ones. As it is, I am trying to find the middle between a poetic and minimalistic style, so my writing doesn’t sound forced, but doesn’t sound like pabulum either. Again, this is a difficult balance to find, and an added problem for me as a young writer, is that I have (in comparison) only read a small portion of the kind of literature which I might try to emulate. Which means that I may not always be aware that what I am writing is actually a cliché. I am currently editing my novel, and in the past few months I have been frequently unpleasantly surprised when I (as a student, and insatiably curious person) discovered that the thing I was so excited about, has actually already been written about extensively. I am not too demotivated, partly because certain subjects never stop being fascinating (love, death; the great themes), but it does nibble away small pieces of your heart to discover that your great discovery was actually not that original at all. 
     But I’m not giving up hope, and I will continue my quest for the beautiful, the surprising, the original thought. And this, I find, is the best way to go about it: if your writing is motivated by a fear of pabulum, rather than a passion for originality, there’s a big chance that your writing will be forced. A passion for originality may not be able to prevent that (I have discovered that often enough during my revisions), but it does help if you don’t want to throw up your hands in despair too many times.