After my last blog post spouting writing advice, and the appreciative responses I got…I am inspired to share another bit of writing advice I have recently given in hopes that it might help writers out there. Or anyone who wants to express themselves creatively.
Recently a new friend asked me if I thought a person could have a blog and write about their passions and thoughts and life without being a “real writer.” She’s concerned that her words don’t always come out on the page the way she’d like. Still she is compelled to write and wanted to know what I had to say about it. My knee-jerk reaction to this sort of question is usually an across-the-board YES! Express yourself! Who cares if it’s not perfect! But my response to her sort of surprised me. In hopes that I do not discourage ANYONE out there who loves to write to get those words down…here’s what a bit of a different side of me had to say:
We could talk and talk about this subject. I guess I agree with Francine Prose: “A well-made sentence transcends time and genre.” I suppose it depends on whether or not you want to attempt to acheive that. Regardless, I think that we need to honor our readers: if the reader is going to invest the time and money and potential emotional energy into our writing, we need to be architects and find that intersection of heart and mind and craft that is writing. I go back and re-read Strunk and White yearly (“The Elements of Style”) just to make sure I haven’t gone off course. I had a bear of an English teacher in high school who would give us an F if we used the passive tense “the dog was walked by me” vs. “I walked the dog.” He docked us big time for what he called “Bombast” and “Deadwood” —extra words, flourish, adverbs etc. I learned early on how to build a sentence without really knowing it was happening and I am most grateful for that.
That said, who cares about a well-built sentence if it’s not alive? If you can’t feel its pulse or hear it sing? That’s what I try to help people with on my writing retreats. I really care about this. For me, it comes down to timing and word play. And authority. And compassion. And responsibility. And intention. When I’m in the hands of a writer who has those things in spades, I am in heaven. And that’s where I want my readers to be. Tall order, but it’s my life’s passion.
It’s the Devil’s-advocate (and I realize, sort of obnoxious) question I ask of my singer/songwriter friend who can’t read music but considers himself a professional musician. ”Are you really a professional if you don’t know the language of your art?”
He counters with the old “Jagger can’t read music. Most famous rock stars, in fact, can’t read music.” He argues that he does know the language of his art. And it’s true– the language of his music is deep and beautiful. But there is something stubborn in me that wants to insist that language is not language if it can’t be written down, and when it’s written down there are certain rights and wrongs that make it a language that can be spoken long after he’s dead and by people in other countries and cultures.
Even if he gets someone else to write it down for him, wouldn’t it serve him to be able to read music found in an archive somewhere from hundreds of years ago? Don’t we have some sort of responsibility to keep languages alive? I fear this with script. They’re not teaching it in schools as much any more. How are the next generations going to be able to read the letters and documents of our Founding Fathers, for instance? And for that matter, is our language going to turn into: “R U probs going 2 the dance?”
My singer/songwriter friend says he’s not interested in that— he doesn’t need to be Bach. Sometimes he wins me over. But the truth is…maybe there’s something in me that…well, wants to be Bach. LOL.
In any case, art is made to inspire its perceiver to laugh and play and heal and grieve and know they’re not alone. (and its creator too.) So…who really cares at the end of the day about the precision of the language. It’s all about expression. And it helps us to make sense of this beautiful and heartbreaking planet. So do what you do on the page, and if you want to become more of an architect, go back to Strunk and White. If not, just try to sing your song.
p.s. I’m well-aware that I write in in-complete sentences from time to time and sometimes a lot. But at least I know I’m doing it. We can play with language, afterall…