Day Thirteen {Concerning Writing}

"There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about 'isms' and influences, and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said."

day thirteen: your favourite book about writing

Thus C.S. Lewis introduces Athanasius' On the Incarnation, and, while I am not an English Literature tutor by any means, I am inclined to say he is right. I went through a literature class, and you would be surprised how very little literature was to be found in those literature text books. It is all about the style and the form and the reason behind the writing. Rubbish. You might as well go through the detailed biological makeup of your wife to tell someone that she is pretty. You cannot kill the goose if you want to have more golden eggs.

Number one, has it ever occurred to those literature teachers that any book may have been written for the sole purpose of creating a good story? Number two, writing is the sort of skill that must be taught by practice chiefly, and by study additionally. You can read volumes on the history and build of a gun, but until you get out in the firing range and wield the thing you will not know how to use it.

As regards writing, I went out and did what Lewis suggested - though I can take little credit as I had no idea his suggestion existed at the time, nor did I realize quite what I was doing. I went out and read. I had no books about writing (and they would have been dull as dullness anyway if I had) I merely had tomes of good writing to hand. So I read them. Just as a worker in a minting factory can pick out fakes or flaws at a glance having studied the real thing, I learned rubbish by acquainting myself with good literature. This is not to say I could write anything other than rubbish: just because you know how a gun goes together and works does not mean you can peg a target in the chest. (I always aim for the head anyway.) I had to work at acclimating myself to the skills I had learned.

I learn by imbibing. I am not the sort of person who can be given a book of bullet points on how to go about writing a decent novel. I won't understand it, and it will only irritate me. I had to immerse myself in decent novels. I had to meet well-written characters to learn how a well-written character works. Writing isn't merely putting words together to make a story, it's knowing which words convey the precise meaning, have the precise impact, and tell precisely what you want. It's an art. It's an art of language. And, like any language, the best way to learn it was to go listen to people who spoke it. I learned the potent play of words in passages like

"I only want my rights. I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity."
"Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity."

and the way natural beauty can be portrayed through figures on ink with such power in passages like

Astern, great clouds bridged the gates of day, boiling upwards into crags of wine-dark vapour and burning plumes of sunrise. In the stainless spaces of the sky above these sailed the horned moon, frail and wan as a white foam-flower blown from the waves. Westward, facing the thunder-smoke of dawn, the fine far ridge of Kartadza was like cut crystal against the sky: the first island sentinel of many-mountained Demonland, his top-most cliffs dawn-illumined with pale gold and amethyst while yet the lesser heights lay obscure, lapped in the folds of night.

I never had a book to teach me how to write; my books were my teachers. There is something to be said for natural raw talent, of course, and I think I had that: but more than that my tutors were masters of the craft already: I was their apprentice.

I rather hope to do them proud.

4 ripostes:

  1. Agreed wholeheartedly on those abhominable (Don't forget the H, Doctor) things they call "Literature Textbooks". All through elementary school I had reading lists. I think first or second grade I may have had literature, but at that age it's simply short stories and there's very little harm to them. But the rest of the time I just kept a list of the many, Many, MANY books I read on my own time.

    High School required more structure, so I looked into a 9th grade literature book. HORROR OF HORRORS! How am I supposed to grasp a story's richness by an excerpt and a short essay on the author and the time in which it was written? I rejected the whole idea and begged Mom to find some way I could avoid it. I wanted to read WHOLE classics. Shakespeare. Chaucer. Dickens.

    So I did.

    It was epic.

    Thank God for homeschooling.

    Ditto with grammar and spelling. I read good books. Didn't know my nouns and verbs and adjectives until 10th grade, but I knew how to use them.

    And now I must run- I have a picnic to attend. In the pouring rain. :-P

  2. I just read that C.S. Lewis snippet in an essay of his the other day. And I was screaming halleluiah to the heavens. "Truth! Truth!" I was never one to read through the literature textbooks and, thankfully, my mother never made me. I buried my nose in British literature and other classic books, and I haven't taken it out of them since. And I've tried time after time to read books about writing, but I've never gotten past the first chapter. >.>

    "I rather hope to do them proud."

    I'm no one to judge, but if I may have my little say: I don't think you have a thing to worry about.

    (Oh, and I awarded you over on my blog. Don't feel as if you have to do it again, of course. Just letting you know. ^.^

  3. This a wonderful post and very true. I regret to say that I'm one who gets out books on how to write a novel but like Katie said most of the time I end up putting the how-to book down because it is so demanding and I found broke many of their "rules".

    Great Lewis quote!! I'm a huge fan of Lewis!!

  4. Amen. I'm sending my this year you write your novel back to the library. I knew there was something wrong with reading books about writing but I couldn't pinpoint what it was. You have hit the nail on the head.