On Writing Clearly
I have an odd hobby. It’s called thinking. I don’t mean to suggest it is odd because it is rarely undertaken, rather that it is an odd hobby because you don’t really think well, until you think a lot. Then you may come to some conclusions that may be right or may be wrong. Comparing notes might be the appropriate thing to do at this point.
I am reading a book on clear writing, by William Zinsser, called “On Writing Well”. For a primer on technique, it is rather entertaining, which leads me to believe that the author is practising what he is preaching.
The book had an interesting anecdote, about Zinsser squared off against another writer, talking to students at a conference. As panelists, they would be asked questions, and then answer. The strangest thing unfolded. Although they were both writers, their answers came out as polar opposites. Zinsser thought writing was a craft to which one must apply their best efforts. The other writer felt that if writing became hard, the writer should leave off and go out for a walk. Zinsser thought the best writing was what was re-written. The other author favoured an off-the-cuff approach as more authentic and to the point. And so on. The conclusion Zinsser came to, was that both were correct. There is no real right answer for anybody.
So why bother to write clearly? It’s an exercise in thinking and thinking is by nature often unclear. We literally don’t know what to think. And so we write in order to find out. I have been blogging for about three years now. I did not blog because I had nothing else to do. In fact, sometimes the blogging has been sandwiched in between a great deal of other things so it is perhaps good that I wake early and get writing done as the first order of many days. I don’t write because I have something to say. I write literally, because I don’t know what to think, and I want to know.
I tend to write about things that I think are real, nonfiction you might call it. Eudora Welty, a writer of some gravitas from the South, famously said, “I write fiction in order to tell the truth”. She was also right I think. When I wrote my small novella, it was largely a stream of consciousness that flowed forth from about fifty years of living without asking permission. When it started to become a rather thick binder, I wondered at it. I didn’t know really what I was getting at. About twenty thousand words later I was still wondering. And so I had to read what I had written over very carefully. The series of vignettes was telling a story it is true, but beneath the story was another story, one that any author hopes is common to all of his or her readers. A re-telling of the human mystery that we all share even though our separate stories may be different.
I had signed a deal to produce a book and I was still panicking at the end that what I had was somehow insufficient. It took a few dark nights of the soul to flesh things out. I am satisfied that I plumbed to the depths of what I wanted to say sufficiently, and with as much authenticity as one can bring to a book of fiction. It is inevitably a part of yourself, and about you, even if it is not really about you. I don’t think three years later that I would take any part back. Those words came forth with sweat, and they were baptized in a bit of blood in the process.
Some people missed the point of the book, they saw the story, but not the story UNDER the story. I don’t feel bad. The book was not really for them anyway. One editor who read things over excoriated me over some things she did not understand, and I in turn, wondered how she could make a living at reading and writing, and still not be able to see. I was advised by some other well-meaning people, that “this or that” subject matter was the thing to write about because people would buy it. Somehow that never struck me as important. What I really hoped, was that the right kind of people would read my book and understand it. There may be just a sprinking of them. It didn’t matter to me at all whether the book would be a best-seller. Some best-sellers are churned out with the earnestness of the kind of artist who stands in a store window and cranks out the ubiquitous and sometimes tedious landscape that everyone has seen of mountains and a sunset, thinking it is clever and more importantly marketable.
Sorry to disappoint anybody, but money never entered into the equation. And so it is that writing is in the end a spiritual endeavour. I am writing toward a distant destination we are all approching, and what I am trying to do is to see it more clearly. So… I hope I have been clear. I hope as well that I have been honest because if I have not, then I have done myself and everyone else who might read a great disservice. I hold out the right to sometimes be wrong. You may not like me sometimes and that is OK because sometimes I don’t like myself very much either. Pick your day.
The really nice thing about writing is that it has made me some friends I did not know I had. The really odd thing about writing a blog is how opaque the whole process is. You look at the stats in the morning and you can see that someone out there has been reading your stuff. You can see the number but you cannot see a face or a name. You can only guess.
Bob Bennet has a song I like entitled, “Singing for my Life”. One of the lyrics goes like this. “These songs are the only prayers I can pray, and I’m singing just as hard as I can”. I’m with Bob I am afraid. These blogs are the only prayers I can pray, and I’m writing just as hard as I can.