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Some of his poetry was included (which was difficult not to think of as the author’s own unpublished work).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.

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16 thoughts on “The Secret to Good Writing?

  1. Back when I was a student, I wanted to be like Jim Thompson or Elmore Leonard. The last paragraph of Chandler’s *The Big Sleep* still gives me a little chill. I think so-called genre fiction is the hardest to do well, and when it’s good it’s really good.

    • You got that right, Randy. Incidentally, it’s been months since I was on this blog. Health (nothing serious) and other distractions, and now we are in the middle of moving. Same town, just a wonderful solid turn-of-the-19th-century fixer-upper Victorian. Lots of room for a change.

  2. Can’t say a blind hog finds an acorn every once in a while because you’ve feasted on too many in the past. Good stuff. I remember deciding not to like Mark Twain as a youngster because my parents liked him. Then I read Some stuff by him and decided he was the best writer the world had produced(based, of course, on my vast literary experience). I also remember Lynnika reading to me in the Ouachita gym about a million years ago after we’d played a little basketball. This was prior to her formal introduction to reading but she gave me a good read from a sheet of paper on the bleachers. Can’t help but remember that when you mentioned her reading.

  3. Holy Goats, it’s the one who wrote as if he was the Holy Ghost! Howdy. I am still with the goats as they graze in green pastures. Thanks for reminding me why. It’s because of their simple, direct language. They look up at me with their solemn faces and say, “I dearly love grass.” All goat language comes from the gut. I have not seen you in a long time. I ordered your spin on Zen from the guy up in Olympia/Centralia. What are you working on right now?

    • Hi, Holly–Haven’t been back to the blog in a while. Distracted first by medical stuff then by moving to our new house, a grand old Victorian (solid but a fixer-upper for sure), from which I’m writing you. I’m probably about to get off Facebook and stuff like that, though I’ll for sure keep email. Mighty nice to hear you. Nah, I wrote as if the HG was a literary character. Nothing remotely holy about me, for sure.

  4. Holy crap, ghost narrator, this is the guy up in Olympia/Centralia. I enjoyed reading this. I loved the phrase clogged-to-infarction style. Dear 6toedvoodoo kitty, I’m sure glad to hear you ordered Jack’s Practicing Zen Without a License. I think everybody sure.

    Jack, I’ve been reading the latest, posthumously published work from our mutual acquaintance Barry Hannah. Some of his stories make no sense, but damn he sure can put words together in fascinating ways.

    • Hey, guy up in Centralia. I’ve been under the weather a while and now we’re moving to our new house, from which in fact I am writing you. Same phone, same email, but 215 Watson, Eureka CA 95501. Should spend our first night here tonight. It’s a great turn-of-the-19th-century Victorian, dark and ugly with rugs and wallpaper and drop-in ceilings. Got the rugs out already and it smells better and is way brighter. The rest is on a cash-available basis. Sure is nice and big. Very solid, wood floors, hell of a good price. Thank you. I should be here more often now.

    • Forgot to say I know what you mean about Barry. What gets me is the misanthropy. But he sure was one hell of a writer. Did I ever tell you we went to the same high school? He was a year ahead of me. Then to the same college, which I left after a year and a half. Then to the same creative writing program. I had dawdled a few years, so he had graduated with his MFA before I went to U of Arkansas.

  5. Totally off-topic, but I moved from Russellville, where I went to college, to NYC. One day I found your book in the sidewalk trash in the East Village. I’m sorry someone threw it away, but it is also very cool that someone wrote a book set in Little Rock and it ended up being so successful (you know, Penguin and important nominations and such :), and also that it crossed my path. I took it out of the trash, cleaned it off, and began reading it.

    • Dear Cassandra–Can’t tell you how glad I am you fed and read the books. To my mind that sort of fortuitous crossing of paths is the very best thing that can happen to a writer. I’ve been totally distracted and haven’t been on my site for a long time. Should get better now.

    • Dr. David–thanks for asking. Short answer yes. I’m gonna start putting all kinds of stuff up. The mechanics are new to me, and I let the unfamiliarity deter me, be my unspoken excuse. But yes. I was on it twice today. Tell you what. Will definitely put something up tomorrow, and probably several days after.

      Hey, my daughter and son-in-law lived in Tuscon for several years. I did the summers of 2007 and 2008. Good town. Hot as blazes.
      Thank you for following the books. Do you know about the re-issue of Jujitsu with University Press of Mississippi and the new and selected poetry now out with Texas Review Press? I think they’re both available in ebook form.

      I’ll definitely post more, and I’ll try to make tomorrow’s worth it.

      Yours, Jack Butler

      • Hey Mister Butler, Thanks for the endorsement on my wacky Linked In page. I am working on my novel, making it for grown-ups since it is rather dark. I am also writing Education articles for a company that accepts one and then rejects one, on and off.They have a team of eager-to-critique editors spread all over the kingdom and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is strangling.

        On Wed, Apr 3, 2013 at 5:39 PM, author Jack Butler wrote:

        > ** > authorjackbutler commented: “Dr. David–thanks for asking. Short answer > yes. I’m gonna start putting all kinds of stuff up. The mechanics are new > to me, and I let the unfamiliarity deter me, be my unspoken excuse. But > yes. I was on it twice today. Tell you what. Will definitel” >

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