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

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Why is writing not just talking written down?

I think Woody Allen writes wonderful banter. I can watch his films over and over again, like a kid who knows what's coming and delights in the fact that it does. The fact that a wee old Jewish man spent ages scribbling it all down on yellow legal pads whilst lying on his bed in a posh Manhattan apartment doesn't really come through. And that's why the banter is so brilliant, because it's not off-the-cuff; it's been mulled over, taken out, put back in, reworded, fiddled with and, only then, does it feel like a throw-away remark. The same goes for all those wonderful period dramas the BBC churns out.

I do make a habit of reading what I've written out loud. To my mind, and I'm not the only author to think this, if it doesn’t work when read aloud then it simply doesn't work. This is where I struggle with a lot of E. E. Cummings' poetry; I don't know how to read it most of the time. There are exceptions like the beautiful poem about the rain having small hands, somewhere i have never travelled, the one Woody has Michael Caine read in Hannah and Her Sisters, but they are few and far between.

Actually this is where I have a problem with my own writing. I have a bent – my wife would say I'm more twisted than bent – to write as I speak and I do tend to speak in convoluted sentences with plenty of asides (and occasionally asides within the asides) and it can be a daunting, nay off-putting, task to punctuate sentences like that and manage to retain the flavour. She's always nipping my head to cut out the conjunctions and the semi-colons and not to use ten words when three will do very nicely thank you very much. (I'll have a fight on my hands keeping that sentence as I wrote it). She, of course, has my very best interests at heart. In fact, every word you're reading right now has been scrutinised by her first. She is a ruthless editor. She needs to be with me.

Somehow we manage to find middle-ground though not always without debate.

My literary hero, Samuel Beckett had a reputation for being totally inflexible and never allowing the blue pencil near his work. Actually that's quite untrue. He was always open to compromise. And if a genius like him was game for it then who am I to make a fuss? Of course I still do. Every word is precious, every comma and, you can jolly well bet, every semi-colon.

Say what you mean and mean what you say is easier said than done and I have to say there have been many times when I wish I had my editor perched on my shoulder like one of those wee angels or devils before I opened my big mouth and put my foot in it but that's life and life sucks and yet for some strange reason I keep insisting on writing about it despite the fact that it refuses to fit neatly into tiny little sentences that actually make sense when you read them.

I have to go now. My wife is having an allergic reaction to that last paragraph.


Unknown said...

Enjoyed your post. Give you wife a Benadryl and keep on writing. Even with an editor on your shoulder, it doesn't get any easier. I've found in my journey through the publishing world that editors are only people with opinions and more knowledge about commas and semi-colons than anyone ever needs in the big scheme of life. :)

Just passing through on Yvonne's blog chain. Enjoyed the visit.
Ginger Simpson

Conda Douglas said...

"Simplify, simplify," Thoreau said. Easier than it sounds. A couple of weeks ago I finished the last draft of a w.i.p. and cut 20,000 words.
I love words and enjoy putting lots of them in, and lots and lots of ellipsis, exclamation points, m-dashes, well, you get the idea. All of which come out of the last draft. I hope.

Unknown said...

I was trying to remember today the apocryphal story about Conrad's wife who locked him into his writing shed for the day. On his being let out his confession that he had spent the day on a comma.

Putting it in, taking it out.

I felt like that today... so wrote, "It is kind of like a story reduced to the essential essence of one period placed very discreetly on an otherwise blank page. It could be the entire world held up in the smudge of a flea frass."

Now, if I saw that period placed on a page I am not sure how I would pronounce it.


zenartnothing said...

But, however, therefore....these and a few others. I found myself returning to using these words, thinking I had left the bad habits behind. I think it is that the more I try to economize, the more I think about the words and the more inspired I am to use more words. Cursed snowball! fundamental as it sounds, I endeavor to catch theses words at their emergence and focus on whether or not they are necessary, which 99% of the time they are not. The real benefit is the distraction from creating more words. Or so I would have myself believe. Don't look back is my motto. Mind, (thanks to you I know have another one to deal with) the editing process has holy hell with the ramblings and I am left with the task of hack and slash.

Jim Murdoch said...

Blogs are different, Zenartnothing, I don't mind a bit of a ramble in a blog; blogs are casual writing, like letters, but when it comes to anything else then I am dead keen to trim away all extraneous material. I'm actually quite lucky as a writer because I don't include much dead weight when I write. I actually have to pad my text out afterwards.

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