Whatever you wish to call it, this conversation has a common question running through the posts, working on macro and micro levels, powering the frustration that sparked the post that fired up the diablogue: What is good writing? Or, phrased a little more personally, what does it mean to write well?
Honest-to-goodness bad writing is usually easy to recognize. Any of us can go over to YouTube, click on any popular video, and read a few comments; there are more trolls on that site than anywhere else I've ever found on the internet, and it shouldn't take long to find a stunning example of inelegance. Poorly constructed sentences, misspellings, vitriol and irrelevance, illogic, rambling ideas and the like exemplify, as Dickens might have said, "How not to do it."
Good writing tends to be harder to quantify. Among other things, in the past years of studying writing and literature, I've learned that tastes differ. Half of us at The Hog's Head thought the opening chapter of the first Potter book was hilarity and brilliance and the other half found it difficult to get into. On the publication front, one agent rejects queries for things another appreciates. Some readers and writers like semicolons and others find them awkward.
Then there are the rules of fashion:
- show, don't tell—broken by Jane Austen
- keep to a moderate sentence length—broken by Charles Dickens
- avoid repetition—broken by Stephenie Meyer
- restrict use of adverbs—broken by J.K. Rowling
- avoid use of the passive voice—broken by Elizabeth Goudge
- unify narrative perspective instead of head-hopping—broken by pretty much every writer before 1900 and at least 95 percent since then
- et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum
Every industry pro will say, and with good reason, that just because great writers got away with certain things in the past doesn't mean we can today. Likewise, that just because the mega-bestsellers broke a rule doesn't mean someone competing for publication should try. But does failure in any of these areas disqualify someone from being a great writer? Hardly. It just might disqualify someone from publication. The tougher the competition, the more technically flawless any of us has to be to win. So be it.
Mr. Pond, in his last posts, speaks of writing theory. He talks of "the precise, singing balance of words, tension, and music—the fusion of story and sound" and of the "place of passion in the human heart which contains the genesis of the quest for beauty, madness, and grief" that we write from. These are two aspects of great writing, inseparable, and he discusses the relation of rules and medium to the greater theme being conveyed. In the process he answers the question of what it means, for a storyteller, to write well:
"Bringing surface narrative into tension and harmony with deep narrative is the craft of storytelling. The art of writing theory is learning how to tell deep narrative in the way it deserves."That is as good a definition of those terms as I've ever heard. The difficulty with this is that it still isn't measurable. There is always room for disagreement among critics over who succeeds and who fails and why. For instance, I consider Chesterton one of the greatest English writers in history, yet I've known people who found him unbearably rambly. I poke fun at Hugo for his intra-novel essays, but my husband loved Les Miserables, essays and all. There's no accounting for taste—mine or anyone else's.
But the difficulty hardly matters. So good writing isn't formulaic? Neither is it anarchic. It could rather be called alchemic—a purification process with infusion of grace, accomplished in part through the reconciliation of opposites such as form and freedom, tradition and innovation. True, no one ever made the philosopher's stone—a source of guaranteed immortality and unending riches—any more than any of us have made our souls or our writing perfect. But why shouldn't perfection be our goal?
We work on our talent, writing, reading, practicing, trying to express our thoughts with pen and paper, in essay and lyric and story, wrestling out our own relationship to the rules of the task. We'll know when we've succeeded, because someone will burst out with a warmth of response, something beyond the studied compliment, something drawn from that same place of passion that moved us to write in the beginning.
At that point, we'll have created gold.
Mr. Pond: Writing Theory, part 2
Me: Truth, Beauty, and Writing for Everyone
Mr. Pond: Writing Theory, part 1
Me: On Breaking Rules
Mr. Pond: Core Magic, Art's Caprice
Me: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Mr. Pond: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
Me: How Not to Write