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The strenuous marriage (3 of 3): strict toiling with language

"Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just carefully imagining truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with language."
- John Irving

In the first and second of my three articles inspired by John Irving's words, I discussed the need for careful observation and the need for precise imagination. But all the acute observation and brilliant imagination in the world will come to nothing if you can't convey your images, characters and the narrative action to your readers.

Strict Toiling with Language

You've just seen a foggy winter's day and have carefully observed it. It has inspired you: it's will help the scene-setting opening of your next ambitious novel, the one that will feature a set of characters diverse in their class, their attitudes, and their fortunes, all involved in a theme of ignorance, unknowingness, and obtuseness, where the world is a labyrinth and the only true guide is love. That fog is going to be your opening, defining scene. You carefully imagine what would be in that London of 1840. Carriages, ships, farmers in the lands around, poor people suffering from the cold, and one of your central characters, revealed in the midst of all of it. Welding together observation and imagination, you write:

It was dark with wet fog, with winter rain, with soot, and mud was everywhere, making walking hard and horrible for horses and pedestrians. The fog made the ships in the river docks indistinct, made the low estuarine land cold and uninviting, made everyone on those ships shiver, made those on shore huddle near their fires, if they were lucky enough to be indoors and not in the fields. It was a dull, nasty day in November, and the Lord Chancellor sat, part of the fog and gloom, closed off in his room in the heart of the city.

Gosh, that certainly summons up the dim, oppressive misery of that day in a specific time and place, doesn't it? All that careful observation and imagination let down by third-rate language.

Language is the only thing you have. It is your single instrument, your tool kit. If a carpenter turned up to do building work with a wonky hammer, a rusty chisel and a single screwdriver, you'd rightly dismiss him as a joke, yet novice writers set to work with a poor vocabulary, a shaky grasp on grammar and spelling, and a slender acquaintance with punctuation with the confidence that they are adequately equipped to write a novel.

I don't think so.

Good writing is more than knowing a semi-colon from a period, a subjunctive from a future tense. It's knowing these so well that they are like a dancer's muscles: so exercised, so trained, that the dancer need only concentrate on what he has to express, paying no mind to the muscle actions he has to make to express them.

Strict toiling with language begins with learning your tools. I have yet to meet the real writer who did not love words for themselves alone. Real writers have decided, sometimes impassioned, views as to the best use to be made of the ellipsis, the colon, the past imperfect, or indirect speech. Real writers keep teaching themselves the rules of good writing and keep practising what they have learned. This is part of the strict toil. You can never become complacent; you must always be learning, striving for higher mastery.

A real writer reads the best writing he can find from past masters, from present colleagues and from rivals to know both what he is aiming for and how those others have achieved what he is seeking to achieve. He is never too proud to sit at the feet of his betters. This is not to imitate them or to steal from them, but to appreciate the ways in which language can be used. The way Henry James shows a character realising that she is trapped in a circumstance of her own making is very different from that of Barbara Kingsolver or Eudora Welty, but how they each do this are lessons a real writer wants to learn – and learns.

But good writing is more than good grammar, a wide vocabulary, an expert understanding of good writing from others, and the confidence to use them. It means cultivating an ear for the right sounds and training your eye for the look of the words on the page. You need to develop the sense of the rhythm of the paragraphs and chapters, an understanding of the pace and swing of the narrative. When the flow turns a little sour or strikes a dead note, you have to train yourself to spot it, to know what went wrong, and to deal with it.

Language takes hard work at both the macro and micro level. You have to learn to 'feel' your story as a whole and to be able to sustain a voice throughout. You also have to be able to zoom into a single sentence, a single comma, and make a considered decision. Cut or not to cut? Reverse verb and noun? Alter the subordinate clause? You'll find yourself debating over one adverb ("she said sarcastically? sardonically? caustically?") as much as you do over the over-all structure of the narrative. A real writer doesn't pretend to be a genius. He assembles a tool kit: an etymological dictionary, a thesaurus, grammars, slang dictionaries, literary references such as Brewers, books of quotations, books of aphorisms, a spelling dictionary – and he uses them.

Strict toil is feeling that scene, feeling the shape of it as it is and as it is within the whole of the novel. If that ambitious novel of yours is to be a long, complex one, full of detail, each scene has to be a microcosm of this, filled with specific detail and language that sets the mood.

Strict toil, because you have to work at it. You have to rewrite and rewrite until you can't face going through that manuscript one more time – and then you go through it one more time. Toil: you might revise a sentence ten times, the opening five pages twenty times, testing it against the carefully imagined scene in your mind's eye, comparing what you've written to that mental image until you have made as perfect a match with it as you can. Strict, because you don't let yourself off the hook until you get it right. Only you can keep yourself to a standard, only you can set that standard. Strict toiling, yes, and the real writer would not trade one agonised hour of it for all the easy work in the world.

What could that raw winter day in old London be like? Here's what one strict toiler wrote:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Yes, it's Dickens. I guess you'd call him a real writer.

Copyright Caro Clarke - www.caroclarke.com