Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Thought thread

There’s always a word music to writing. That pattern can be what makes the content easily absorbed, because it’s comfortable to listen to. I would tell you the names of the patterns, but though I can hear them I can never remember what they’re called, because my mind doesn’t hang on to data. So, Shakespeare has his ten-beat pattern, which has a name – is that what a pentameter is? I don’t know. But it gives his writing a fluidity, a natural quality, so it slips through the soul like a river, as if it belongs there.

If music be the food of love – play on.

The path of true love never did run smooth.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

This above all: to thine own self be true.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Can one desire too much of a good thing?

Now is the winter of our discontent.

And so on.

Here in England we have BBC2, and Radio 4, and their programmes seem to me to be put together by similar people for a similar audience. They have special patterns to their word music, and to their humour.

The humour has a curiously 70s flavor – the pause for a laugh, the man with a falsetto voice. Jokes written by, and for, older men. People who use the word ‘chortle’, and even do so. People for whom terms like ‘sharp’, ‘science’, ‘spin’, ‘political’ and ‘intellect’, hold strong attraction. People in whose lives establishment and power are a given, and sophistication mistakenly assumed.

In the word music, interrupted flow and a heavy footfall characterize. Also, the use of well-worn similes/metaphors importing a wry humour – because never really believing anything is part of the stock-in-trade of this genre.

Erm . . . an example . . . Well – suppose it was a programme about railways in India. There’d be an in-depth on station personnel, a wrapping up about how the train would go on running and another day would dawn, etc – then something like (in a quiet voice with a humorous, reflective, semi-fading quality):

But for Sanjeev [pause] this may be the end [pause . . .] of the line . . .

It drives me wild.

In preaching, and in writing, similar conventions apply. The preacher who starts ‘When I was preparing this sermon’, the writer who starts by explaining ‘In this book . . .’ Yawn. I’ve lost count of the sermons I’ve heard, ministers’ letters in parish magazines I’ve read, that begin with a preamble describing the extreme hardship under which its creator labored – having to write the sermon/article, but being able to think of nothing to say. Double yawn. And then there is the preacher who, in getting down to tackle the subject, feels there are three points to be drawn out. No! Really?

To start without preamble at all, to finish while people are still listening, to write about what you hand-on-heart believe, to find the humour innate to a situation and paste on nothing extra, to catch the cadences of real speech and so tug the imagination – this is the art.

Every now and then you find it. The thing is, what is fresh and takes you by surprise, what is vivid and catches you off guard, is found not (most of the time) in media scripts written competently by a safe pair of hands, nor in sermons urging you, ‘like St Peter, to step out of the boat’. They always tell you, if you want to be a writer, the thing above all you must absolutely do is READ.
All my life I’ve heard this and kept quiet, thinking since there seems to be such complete consensus I must surely be wrong. Because I’ve always thought, if you want to be a writer, the thing above all you must do is observe; by which I mean, both watch and listen. The child who is frightened of what his father will say, the dying woman in the hospital bed, the senior executive who has to let people know his wife has left him, the dog who has delayed starting her chew with the sole purpose of tormenting the other (greedier) dog, the white inner eyelid of the crow, its broad shoulders and the sheen on its feathers; the way living things shine in the dusk. The endeavor is not a matter of crafting a neat turn of phrase, or making sure you have three laugh-out-loud jokes to the page, or stopping short of ever expressing any kind of real conviction. It’s just about really noticing; letting the funny, sad, terrible, pointless, beautiful realities of life seize your viscera and twist. Then write it down, and after that simply stop.


Rebecca said...

Well. You did THAT quite well.
Yes. QUITE well, really.

Have you written YOUR book on writing yet?

Have you read any Anne Lamott?

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Hiya. Yes, I've enjoyed Anne Lamott's writing xx

Ganeida said...

Hmmm....Methinks the enjoyment of style is subjective. I clash with all my friends about Tolkien & Lamott. They drive me insane because they never actually seem to arrive anywhere. *sigh* Attwood & Godden, tighter, terser yet still with a lovely flow I find better. I dislike the Victorian too. All those sentences that morph into entire paragraphs & require a degree in Grammar just to reach the end! Sorry. Bone of mine. Drives me wild. The best writing advice I ever heard was along the lines of *write like you talk* ~ without all the ums & errs of course. Maybe I just missed your point. I don't listen to radio or t.v. There's enough noise inside my own head.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Julie B. said...

I may not be commenting exactly on what you mean, but I read Bill Bryson books for the very reason that his timing, the "music" of the way he writes each sentence is so brain-satisfactory it's almost a physical clink. I'm reading his current "One Summer: America, 1927" and can hardly believe I'm enjoying what I'm reading, but I know it's the timing/meter/music/whatever of his writing. Truly uncanny and brilliant. Sorry to rabbit trail....

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes, that's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. There will be a way to analyse what he's doing, but such endeavours are always too difficult for me. xx

Nearly Martha said...

Indeed, or the preacher who starts with "I have not prepared for this sermon - I have decided to let the Spirit lead us." I like a sermon that's been prepared myself, studied and rehearsed so the speaker knows how it will sound and rise and fall. I'm not too good at that myself so I appreciate it in others even more.

Suze said...

I have to concur with Ganeida. I understand the comments about the Victorian writing style and have to smile. I far prefer English humour to the American humour that invades our Australian culture. Trying to be elaborate or smart shows and I do not like overdone writing.

When my children were young and when I taught I asked them to read their writing assignments out load before they submitted them. Mistakes "jump" and ask for correction. I admit I would not make a writer. My grammar is too poor.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi, Martha - yes, my husband does that rehearsing thing you describe. Works well.

Hi Suze - I find it helpful to read out novels I'm writing, chunk by chunk, to my family - it's a good way to spot repetitions and clunky or ambiguous phrasing.


gail said...

Well Penn,
I just like the way you write from the heart. That may sound pretty simple, but I am one of those folk who slip right into the story and I become part of it. When I'm reading your blog though, or something similar I talk back to you in my head whilst I'm reading. I certainly agree with Ganeida, " write like you talk ''. Reading is one of the joys of my life, however I won't finish a book I'm not enjoying because there are too many wonderful and informative books and writings to waste time on something that doesn't hold my interest.
Blessings Gail.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx