The Secret to Good Writing?

The other day my older daughter, Lynnika, was reading an account of the recent financial chicanery written before the collapse—an account that could have predicted the collapse if anyone had paid attention.

But I’m not dealing with financial chicanery here.  I’m treating a subject that will seem far smaller and less important to most people.

Her complaint about the book was that it was written in an unwieldy and obtuse fashion, as if it were trying to imitate the “high” syntax of a previous age.  (She said the book improved later, by the way.)

I used to have a correspondent, who, knowing I was a poet, attempted to show me respect in his letters  I have to say thanks for the attempt, since so few people have any respect for poets any more.  (And given the quality of most highly-praised poetry nowadays, who can blame them?)

The thing is, he wrote in a preposterously inflated and awkward style.  I’m sure it wasn’t the way he normally wrote to people.  He was trying to be worth reading, and so he trotted out every big word he knew.  The result was more comic than complimentary, though.  He didn’t really have a good handle on those words, and there were frequent spoonerisms and bathetic overreaches.

I was reading a science fiction novel recently—actually, I cut my teeth on science fiction, which, when I was young, was generally horribly written but had the sort of speculative genius that philosophers brag about now—and actually, there are very few stand-alone science fiction novels any more, there are only interminable trilogies and tetralogies and worse—and in this one there was a famous poet in the far future, the qubit-connected, light-speed-exceeding, space-faring far future.  The famous poet, naturally, was a drunk.

Some of his poetry was included (which was difficult not to think of as the author’s own unpublished work).  It turned out to be positively Victorian in phrasing, syntax, and form.  I had to wonder if maybe, just maybe, by some five thousand years or so in the future, assuming humans and poetry still existed, maybe they would not have developed a more, well, futuristic style.

I now see all three of these phenomena as part of the same misconception about the nature of good writing.  Don’t know how many books I have read like the one my daughter was reading—interesting and sometimes even valuable subject matter, but a clogged-to-infarction style whenever the author seemed to feel he or she was approaching a high literary moment.

The misconception is that literature results from artificiality, that “high” lit is the retreat to lofty and impenetrable standards of discourse from bygone ages, and that “serious” writers distinguish themselves from “pop” writers by their ability to handle this congested old stuff, incomprehensible to most, that somehow one is “elevated” by exposure to this stuff even though one normally avoids it.

I can see how the misconception got to be so prevalent.  Most writing is bad, let’s face it.  In any age, most of the writing will be deservedly forgotten.  I used to tell my students, no matter what else happens, you WILL become quaint.  It’s inevitable.  People use language for their lives, and eventually, it will have changed so much they can’t read their ancestors.

The thing about great writers is that they got at it, they told important or funny or striking truth about their people and their times.  Some of us learn to understand what seems “quaint” because the writing is so good it gets to the heart of the matter.  In the tenth grade I was expecting Shakespeare to consist of boring old unreadable “high” sentiment.  Instead, I was blown away.  I found I could get the drift easily enough, and with a little reading, could follow the thinking more and more accurately, and enjoy the writing tremendously.

Great writing does not abandon the present.  It enlivens it.  It brings the same standards to bear in the styles of speech and writing we are familiar with that the great writers of the past brought to bear in their day.

Mark Twain was a “pop” writer.  So was Shakespeare.

It’s just that they took it all the way.  They did something more.  And as a result, many of us still read them today.

But the secret isn’t in being old-fashioned.

The general conception is that language creates poetry, but I think it’s the other way around.  I think poetry creates language.  That the original act of language is the act of poetry.  I think of poetry (or great writing, if you will), as the spirit or energy which is inseparable from language itself.

Without the great dawning idea that much of what one experiences can be represented in abstract, agreed-upon pulses of sound, there would be no language.  And that idea is itself the original spark, poetry.

Writing does not become lofty by imitating, badly, the past.  It becomes great by making the most, in words, of the present.