7.12.2010

The Transmutation of Words

Mr. Pond has come up with new words for our ongoing blogalogue, including blogversation and blogument. If I want to respond in kind, I'll have to resort to a thesaurus or a burst of inspiration, because I can't think of any more talking words to mesh with blog. Hmm. Maybe if I branch out... I could do web + debate = webate, but webate just looks weird.

Oh well.

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
(Perhaps I should add: Don't start sentences with conjunctions—broken by me at least four times in every blog-post. But I'm not famous.)

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.

Previous conversation:

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

6 comments:

  1. I like webate. The new words appear as my private mockery of webwords, and the horrible sounds they introduce to English language.

    'Perhaps I should add: Don't start sentences with conjunctions—broken by me at least four times in every blog-post. But I'm not famous.'

    And that made me laugh.

    I see exactly where to go in the next installment--how do we (or should we even) quantify these things? You bring up some excellent points. And I loved your comparison with alchemy. It is a mad dream of unrealized hope, isn't it, this funny old writing life.

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  2. "It is a mad dream of unrealized hope, isn't it, this funny old writing life."

    Hear, hear, Mr. Pond. I'm glad you liked the post. It was fun to write, even in my more-than-half-somnolent state yesterday. And I'm very interested to read your response.

    Webate doesn't sound like it should be squelchy onomatopoeia, as blog-based webwords do, but it looks either like a mispronunciation of rebate or like "web ate". I'm not quite sure what to do with that. :)

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  3. Love it. I just have to add that "webate" makes me think of Elmer Fudd trying to say "rebate."

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  4. Meg, thanks for coming by and for the mental picture of Elmer Fudd saying "rebate." :D

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  5. So, I have had this post saved in my reader since, well, you posted it, because I wanted to comment but haven't had time. Tonight I'm making the time because, I want to comment on your next post in the webate (sounds like "ribbit!" ha I'm imagining a lone bullfrog hiccup-ing this word into the boggy ether) as well, and having both posts staring at me, waiting for comments, is not fair to the posts nor to you, Jenna (though granted there's no way for you to know these comments were brewing on my end... but I know they have been and want to share them with you). So, here we are. :)

    Actually there were two reasons I wanted to chime in here. The first is to simply say, I am one of The Hog's Head patrons (lurker though I be) who ADORES the opening chapter of SS/PS. My gosh, every time I read it I laugh so hard to the point of snorting, only to end the chapter w/ joyful, heartfelt tears in my eyes as the wizarding world toasts to "The Boy Who Lived." Even typing those words just gave me chills. Such brilliance.

    The other thing I wanted to comment on was this simple statement of yours: "a purification process with infusion of grace" -- I think this is a beautiful and utterly truthful description of what the process of good writing (or creating of any kind) involves. Synergy with God, but also a knowledge that there is a certain something we have no control over whatsoever, and is God's to give and ours to receive if our hearts and minds are open to Him during the process.

    Great post. :)

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  6. Thank you for your comment, Donna! I'm with you on that first chapter of SS/PS. Also, I loved what you had to say about that which is "God's to give and ours to receive..." Well put.

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