March 3, 2010 § 2 Comments
I can’t do a lot of things.
I can’t play the guitar. I can’t sing no matter how hard I pretend. I can’t hang a picture straight and level on a wall. I can’t tell you what the state our union is in, or even what the state of the union means. I can’t do chemistry, and I certainly can’t do math.
But I can do this. I can write.
And even though I’m only 21—a rambling, unrealistic optimist, one-talent-kind-of-girl—I can intelligently string two sentences together. Because after 21 years of speaking, thinking, and reading the English language, I do know a thing or two about the craft of writing. And I know I have plenty of years left to explore the realm of writing and literature further, but I am convinced I have enough authority to comment on Elmore Leonard’s article “Writers on Writing.”
Leonard has come up with 10 tips, hints, or rules about writing. But I think that a more accurate title for this article would be “10 Rules Writers Should Follow for Readers’ Short Attention Spans.”
Each tip is geared to amateur wannabe authors, the ones that are out for publication, syndication, or whatever –tion they’re after. And with the attention span of today’s readers, the best way to be published is to leave out all sorts of things that readers aren’t interested in. For example, #10, Avoid things readers tend to skip. Well if this rule was followed, we’re left without the ramblings of John Steinbeck, the crazy eccentricities of William Faulkner, or the blunt descriptions of Goyen.
Or, #9 Don’t go into detail describing places and things. If you followed this rule to the tee, there would be no Austen-ic descriptions of the way people sit, the way they look at other characters, specific bodily movements that clue the reader into what exactly is going on. Or Dickens’ use of character tagging, such as in his novel Hard Times. Each description of the physical appearance of a character denotes a specific personality trait.
This is why classic literature is so rich; with their beautiful descriptions of places, things, objects. Even in modern literature, Cormac McCarthy has a way with words that paints more than a vivid picture of what is happening. Don DeLilo in White Noise writes with a sort-of whimsical style in his descriptions of the station wagons, college-life, and college-life as a professor.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Greats wrote with their readers in mind. And when I say the Greats, I mean Faulkner, Steinbeck, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, and so on. I think that if Hemingway sat down to write a novel or a short story and thought to himself, “Well, as good as that description is, no one will read it so I’ll just leave it out,” what would the state of his work be in today? Would he be considered one of the greats?
In fact, Leonard almost seems to agree to this. If you look closely, almost every rule is followed by its exception. For example, “Unless your Margaret Atwood…” or “If you happen to be Barry Lopez…” Well what would it take to be the next Atwood or Lopez? By following Mr. Leonard’s 10 easy steps or by just writing to write?
The problem I have with Leonard and his rules are not that they are not good tips to follow. In fact, by not following his rules of writing, we’ve got things like Meg Cabot and Stephenie Meyer: repeating characters, three descriptive pages on teeth brushing and hair washing, archetypical weather imagery as the only way to create mood. But by following them to the extreme creates the idea that writing is something other than just an artform. That maybe writing is more of a technique, a talent, and if you follow these rules maybe you can cultivate a large enough following to get noticed.
Because, let’s face it, being noticed is really what it’s all about these days.
It’s no longer about writing for the pure joy of it, or writing because you have to. It’s all about writing for a goal.
I have heard that writing is a dying artform. And if you think about it, it could be true. Newspapers are shutting down, everything is going online. Even here at Bright Sky in our economic times we have to think very carefully about what to publish. But writing itself will never cease to exist. Though it moves on to new forms, it never dies. Good writing, no mater what form it’s in, will always be a living, breathing thing.
I am reminded of the literary essay by Ezra Pound: A Retrospect. He begins with three very straightforward rules: Direct treatment of the ‘thing’, take out unnecessary words, compose rhythm with a musical phrase. And I know that the essay seems to be about writing poetry, but I think that good prose reads like poetry. In fact he says later, “Good prose will do you no harm, and there is a good discipline to be had by trying to write it.” Writing should be treated like poetry, read like prose, and revered like music.
And that is what Mr. Leonard seems to forget: the joy of writing as an artform.
So I leave you with a tip of my own: Write what you want, when you want, solely for the reason that the story burns alive so hard you can’t put it out any other way. And when you think you’ve got nothing else to say, write some more. Or when you think no one is interested in reading it, write it anyway.
Because as long as there is writing, there is life.