The Nitty Gritty of the Gentle Art of Mari Howard

The Amazon Kindle, possibly so named in the hope it would encourage (kindle a lasting interest in) reading, is not the real subject of this piece.  Words and language are a lead-in. Everyone who is a writer will recognise how familiar words and phrases can so easily become cliched or overused, oddly especially those used by (some) writers writing about writing! “As a writer”, someone states, kicking off an opinion paragraph. “I love words”, “she has a way with words”, two phrases which, well, make our relationship with our communication tools sound all too creepy. I am probably very picky, but those cliches, set in a blog about writing, can be really annoying. Like, “If you love words, then couldn’t you dress up that thought into more imaginative clothing?”.

Words, are, after all, the bare bones, or basic bricks, of any piece of writing. It’s the choice, the use, the combination, which makes for a captivating piece. The new metaphor, the astounding simile. Think of Shakespeare (back in his day, of course – we couldn’t use the same style of writing, say, in crime fiction nowadays. Imagine Shakespearean speech in a scientific journal!) But I think of Tolkien, and how, in the Lord of the Rings, his use of  carefully chosen archaic words, placed within the English we all speak, give atmosphere and credibility to the text as myth. As does the epic style cadences in some passages of the text. Mind you, Tolkien’s obsessive editing and re-editing of a manuscript meant he must have driven his publishers mad with delays… we “wordsmiths” (another fancy noun used around writers!) can't spend too much time hammering at our anvils (sorry, computers) or nothing would get done.

I used to employ a phrase, after posting something possibly controversial in a Facebook group for writers: “not a proper writer”. I’d add it to my comments on posts discussing procrastination or writers block. “But then I’m not proper writer.” I really am not. Not if I fit the wordsmith, way with words, lover of words (on their own? Without a meaningful contextual phrase?) Too many fanciful ideas have been foisted on writers, and I, a poor speller, lacking a degree in Eng. Lit., shall reach for my paint brush and  blame the Romantic Movement…

Actually, writing seems a diaphanous ambition for children to have treasured, growing up. Indeed for them to have understood.  “A writer”. Hum. At Uni, I recall asking my new friends questions like “How did you decide to study medicine?” or “Why did you want to do engineering?” Medics often replied by talking about becoming aware, as younger children, of various relatives with long-term illness, or having a disabled sibling who hadn’t survived childhood, so it began as an infant concept of “I want to do research and make people better”.  The engineers are fascinated by how machines work. The architects are interested by buildings. Not all students “know” of course. Many are guided into a subject by careers teachers, or looking at their “best subjects”. Or by family, ambitious for the offspring to have a profession. But – writers –? Is writing really about a love of words? Or even of language? Why not study linguistics?  A writer surely needs a subject… words can hardly become a specialty without using them to write. They work best as a co-operative collective…

I have this sneaky feeling that the real basis of becoming “a writer” is this: writers begin by being that kind of child who is most annoying to the parents, teachers, and carers. The ones who endlessly chatter, giving their opinion on everything, questioning why we have to wear shoes, have a bath, eat our sprouts, listen to the teacher, do sports… etc. They’re people with opinions, questions, ideas about life, which everyone must listen to and know about and even maybe act on.

They’re also grown from another kind of child, the ones who, when reading a story, want to add a sequel or immediately tell a story of their own. They will, from a very young age, combine elements of several stories together in order to “write” (usually tell) one of their own to anyone who can be tied down, by their insistence, to listen. We have a three and half year old grandson who has begun this… I was one myself, only I used drawing for my storytelling,  At school, given a poem or short story to write as homework, any possible creativity immediately fled. Creative writing began much later.

Of course, other writers dispense thoughts, biography, analysis, description, self-help, using words to bring the facts alive, giving it all their own special twist. A journalist friend, who writes wonderful prose, swears he “can’t and won’t write fiction”. Whatever we write, the bottom line for those of us who work with words, is definitely communication. Our raw material is, I’d argue, ideas not words.  Introverts (cliche?) or not, it’s the desire to be heard, to influence, to contribute. We can’t stop. Solitude may be necessary for getting it down, but an audience is the goal. Wordsmith? No.  Word lover – not exactly. Proper writer – probably. Quietly and determinedly self opinionated – aren't we all? Hopefully of interest, information, some of our ideas possibly dangerous or subversive, we're also lighting fires, in the imaginations of our readers.


Susan Price said…
I DO love words. I love the sound and rhythms of them. I'm fascinated by their derivations and how they've changed over time... But that said, I agree with you. When it comes to inventing a story that's worth working on for years -- and worth the effort of reading it -- then it's ideas that matter. The words are just the medium.
:-) I have earned to enjoy the words we use as their individual selves - but that took me decades of being married to a guy whose daily work is defining them (along with a whole team of others)... complex creatures, words, shape-shifters (or rather, meaning-shifters)as well!
Umberto Tosi said…
I love reworking words that I wrote in a previous draft and - if I'm lucky - transform generic information into "writing" - that rings true and apropos to a story and the characters within it. There's a fine line between that lyricism and overwrought pretention. I hope I can always detect the latter and put it out of its misery quickly. Often what I fancied as fine proves to be embarassing the next day, but that comes with our territory, I suppose. Thank you for this thought-provoking post.
Griselda Heppel said…
Your first paragraph did make me laugh! Yes indeed, the utter laziness of people writing about writing and the beauty of words, yet resorting to such hackneyed phrases to describe these things.
I agree that writers want to communicate ideas first and foremost - but aren't words the raw material by which we do it? Sound and sense, the flow of the sentences are all crucial to the ideas, pictures, emotions etc we're trying to convey - as you analyse so perceptively in the case of Tolkien.
I like the idea of writers lighting fires in the imaginations of their readers. Yes!

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