Monday 18 April 2011
The power of the word
I was taught to read by my mother before I started school at the age of five. All my life I’ve been a passionate reader, moving from one thing to another, one genre to another. With reading I came to writing, something I’ve also been doing since an early age. Blogging for me is simply an extension of the dairies and journals I have been keeping since I was six years old.
From time to time I look back on some of these, a funny and heart-warming experience. It’s easy to see that the quality of my writing is closely related to the course of my reading. In other words, I was learning by example, learning that there is no mystery to good prose – it’s a craft, that’s all, a craft perfected as one comes to understand words and how words are best used.
Now I come to tackle one key question, put in discussion quite recently: is it possible to be a writer and not a reader? Is it possible, to put it another way, to produce decent prose by learning from media other than the published word? Do things like audio books or watching news channels help in producing a good writer?
For me the answer is simple; no, of course they can’t. Audio media and personal interactions might help improve skills in conversation and communication but they cannot, by their own, help a person to become a good writer. Only an understanding of the forms of language, how language is structured and how words are used can do that; only reading can do that. Any fool can write; it takes discipline to write well. The more one reads the better one writes, not just learning how it is done well, but seeing how it is done badly.
I’ve had so many influences, so many writers I have learned from when it comes to good English usage and points of style. I have particular admiration for Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, the best essayists and satirists in the English language. Orwell’s Why I Write and Politics and the English Language deserve special mention for their clarity and example. The latter, in particular, should be compulsory reading for all those in public life, a suggestion I have made on previous occasions.
When I’m writing I have Orwell’s admonitions at the front of my mind, his warnings against the use of stale phrases, ugly compound words and dead metaphors. If one begins writing simply by listening, listening to news media or information channels, one is liable to pick up every sin against language that Orwell identifies, with some contemporary horrors added for good effect!
There us another thing here. The best writers, the greatest writers, are also psychologists, reading the character of others through the written word alone. I’m thinking of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, specifically the section headed Oxen of the Sun, where he moves seamlessly through the various styles of other authors, recreating them in words, dipping from his own personality into the personality of Charles Dickens, to take but one example, so different in every conceivable way. It’s impressive, a tour de force in imagination and art, clearly based on a perfect love and understanding of prose, the inner mysteries of the word.
I’m not going to touch on the technical aspects of writing, notably parsing and good grammar, other than to say that these cannot be picked up other than through reading, understanding what is right and what is wrong, where a comma comes and where it does not. But if you want to follow this route I would suggest starting with Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which provides no better illustration of the power of punctuation!
So, if anyone says that they have seen good writing produced by somebody who is not a reader ask to see the writing and judge for yourself. If it is good I can guarantee you that the writer in question is almost certainly a liar.