Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Strength in Prose

The downside of books—and blogs—about writing is that they leave the impression that there is something important to know about writing, that we (who know it) can tell you how to write well. People who have difficulty expressing themselves in writing come to feel, by the very existence of so much good advice about how to do it, that their problem amounts to not having been let in on the secret. Underneath their inability to write, that is, they imagine a profound ignorance. After I show them some little trick to getting it done, my authors sometimes say "Nobody ever told me that!"

While it is true that writing instruction (especially in Denmark) leaves much to be desired, it is important to emphasize that you do not learn what you need to know about writing by reading a book or listening to a teacher explain to you how a sentence, paragraph, or journal article"works". You learn how to write well by writing regularly, revising often, and presenting your writing to its intended audience for critique. Good writing is not something you learn but something you train; it is not so much knowledge but discipline that counts. People who "can't write" are not primarily stupid or ignorant. They are weak.

Your prose style, like your physique and posture, emerges from your training. People notice that you "write well" much like they might notice that you walk and stand with a certain kind of dignity, or that you are able to lift and move things with ease. Grace in everyday motion depends on having much stronger muscles than one "needs" for simple tasks, i.e., from being far from the limit of one's power when doing ordinary things, and these virtues of physical comportment (dignity, ease, grace) are of course virtues of style. Good prose, similarly, has a certain kind of strength.

The purpose of a sentence and a paragraph is to affect the reader's mind in some way, to "move" it. The writer pushes against the mental comportment of the reader, and the reader pushes back. While there are a lot "tricks" and "moves" you might learn to "handle yourself" in this situation (to "write with power", as Peter Elbow famously put it) there is simply no substitute for the strength you develop by training, i.e., by practicing this ability to push against the mind of another. A strong prose style develops by repeatedly writing with a relevant audience "in mind", imagining how it will push back, and by presenting it to that audience often, i.e., letting it actually push back.

Though you may have much to learn, your experience of not "standing up" in this shoving match is not primarily an experience of your stupidity or ignorance. It is an experience of weakness. And weakness is relatively easy to overcome. You simply have to work on it every day. Easy does it.


Jonathan said...

I talk posture very literally. I right with a straight back.

Thomas said...

Yes, the ergonomics of writing are worth a post in their own right. (My home computer is terribly set up for writing. And my left wrist is feeling it. Not something to take lightly.)

I are you making a stronger claim here though? Are you saying that your straight back shows in your prose? (It does, indeed, have some "spine" in it, after all.)

Jonathan said...

I was thinking of posture as attitude, both metaphorically and literally. If you think of Mifune's bodily carriage in The Hidden Fortress and try to hold your body like that as you write, that might give your prose more "spine."

Ergonomics matter too. You can injure yourself in a quite literal way by holding your wrist wrong over weeks and months.

Thomas said...

Thanks for the example. In a future post I will have to allegorize this study of posture/style.