Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Saturday, 17 November 2007

The quest for the perfect sentence

I read an interesting article a while back by Wendy Keller called The desire not to write, a part of which goes:

The reason writers don't write is because we simply know that language cannot begin to convey accurately the words in our hearts, minds and spirits.

She has a point.

As I may have mentioned I have a fondness for the work of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Well, not all of it. I own all of it and I've read all of it but some of his early prose goes right over my head. As a young man, a young intellectual, his work was deliberately esoteric and referenced now quite obscure classical literature, heroes of his like Dante and Racine, but over the years he moved farther and farther from his origins towards, to use his expression, "a literature of the unword". In fact he waged a lifelong battle with words and suffered frequently from bouts of crippling writer's block. He was rarely satisfied with his efforts and always self-deprecatory when presenting new works. His final text, a poem literally written on his deathbed, What Is The Word? finds its narrator struggling to express himself in words. Of interest is the fact that Beckett wrote the piece in French (a language he had escaped to in the nineteen-fifties to rid himself of as much English cultural baggage as possible) and then immediately translated the poem, clearly aware that his time was limited. An excellent article on this poem can be found at lingua franca where Colin Duckworth writes:

He seems to have regarded the very qualities of English as obstacles to what he wanted to express…

Beckett really held the very opposite view to Wendy Keller, that English offered him too much scope. The fact is that, under different circumstances, English can either be a famine or a feast. It certainly makes its words earn their keep.

The bottom line, though, is that writers work with words. They are not perfect. But then clay isn't ideal nor is wood or metal and yet artists have shaped these over the years into impressive, albeit imperfect, works of art. Why should words be so different? I'm reminded of one of the most interesting characters in Camus's novel The Plague: Grand, a low-level clerk with a passion for writing who has been working on the same opening sentence for years, unwilling to move on until he is convinced his first sentence is perfect.

There are times, especially as I slouch towards old age, that, like the narrator in What Is The Word? I struggle for the right perfect word but more often than not it's not simply the one word that won't tow the line, it's all of them that refuse conspire to work together; they gang up against me and keep sending bullying me back to the beginning to start fail again only a bit better each time, to paraphrase Beckett. The real question is, why don't I commit literary suicide and be done with it, instead of, like Sisyphus, insisting on trying to write what I know is impossible?

I can't write more. I'll write more.


Conda Douglas said...

This is why I struggle so to "turn off the editor" with first drafts, Jim. It's never half as good as it is in my head. However, it's impossible to edit a blank page.

I've known authors who've spent years on rewriting/editing trying to get it "right." It's all subjective.

Me, I muddle through and do the best I can at the time.

Conda Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Conda Douglas said...

Oops, I posted my comment twice somehow--feel free to remove! (My computer is sooo slow today.)

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