Monday, March 2, 2015

And Still More on Writers

I know writers who write well. I also know writers whose works are, at least to me, barely readable. I know broke writers and wealthy writers, writers of novels, historical romances, science fiction and fantasy. I know a poet or two, and song writers and journalists, and flash writers whose stories are never more than a few lines at most.

Writing, I believe, is nothing more than a craft. We work with words rather than, say, wood. We learn the basic rules and apply them.

Grammar is important, as are sentence structure and clarity. We find ways not to overburden the prose and after a while we come to realize that very good writing often depends on what is not written or even alluded to. Good writing promises and delivers. Bad writing promises and does not.

Excellent writing, which is much rarer, has windows and doors that allow the reader to become part of the story being told. Excellent writing invites you into the house, serves tea and madeleines, and then, as you’re inspecting the art work on the walls, it delivers the knockout punch. You don’t see the punch coming, nor do you feel it. You simply and suddenly find yourself knocked flat on your butt, almost breathless, certainly stunned, and grateful for it.    

It’s only after you know most of the guiding principles of your craft that you can begin to take liberties, and you’ll do this at great risks.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Hunter Thompson, the creator and best purveyor of gonzo journalism. Thompson, despite his massive success, would say he never felt totally comfortable bending the rules of reporting. He did it anyway because he had to. The traditional media, he thought, was largely spineless, uninspired, and seldom really interested in reporting facts. Thompson believed the only way to write and to pass on the passion he felt was to put himself inexorably in the epicenter of his story. He would become part and parcel of the tale, grab its audience by the scruff of neck and drag the readers—sometime as they kicked and screamed—into his writing.

He appeared to be an easy read but wasn’t. What occasionally seemed like the ravings of a deranged man was actually wonderfully composed and powerful prose. He stirred a new generation of writers, none of whom to date have even come close to achieving his level of sagacity.

At the other end of the spectrum are good writers who have dumbed themselves down to please a greater readership. That’s an art as well, though perhaps a less satisfying one.

Me, I’m nowhere near the level where I can go off the beaten track and establish anything totally my own. I still ape writers better than I am, and I still struggle with some of the most basic rules.

That’s okay. I’ll get there or maybe not.

Progress, not perfection.   

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