Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Again: warning for length. Thank you so much for the kind comments of yesterday, and high salutes to those of you who are sticking with it. I am always slightly uncertain whether a blog is the right place to do this, and yet I always bash it out, in case it might be of use. I hope it is.
One thing I say to my students is that writing cannot really be taught. In some ways, you just have to go and do it. There is a lot of trial and error, of endless practice, of using your own initiative and learning to trust your own instincts. What I am giving you here is not carved in stone. It is suggestion, more than anything else. It is everything I have learnt, from years of doing it, from years of reading the good books about doing it. Take what speaks to your own writing heart, and leave the rest.
A quick diversion on rules, and the word Nice:
I talk quite a lot about rules, and when you may or may not choose to follow them. Some are absolutely chiselled in stone: the apostrophe must go in the correct place, both for clarity and correctness, and also trust. If your reader sees a grocer’s apostrophe, she will momentarily lose faith in you; she will wonder if she is in a safe pair of hands. (On a personal note, this is where blogging is quite frightening for me. I do not have time to polish madly; generally my posts are what I call draft and a half. In any other writing for publication, I would do a minimum of seven drafts, including one for clichés.)
Some rules are mutable. I think split infinitives are generally best avoided; on the other hand, if you find yourself twisting yourself inside out like a pretzel in order not to boldly go, then split the damn thing. Sometimes it does read better. Trust your instinct on this. It is the same thing with prepositions at the end of sentences.
In my wilder moments, I think there are no rules, or rather that there are, but when you get good enough, you can throw them out of the window, as you please. I always think of Picasso: he first became a master draftsman; he did the beautiful reality of the blue period; only then could he tear up the book and start putting people’s noses behind their knees. If he had not really known what he was doing to start with, then those later paintings would have been a mess. Guernica would not have meant anything. That’s quite a serious thing to think about.
So, rules are important, and there are some. But just for now, I want to give you an emblematic example of how rules may be discarded.
A lot of people will tell you: oh, don’t be using adverbs. Adverbs are the work of hacks, and Satan. And actually, if you want to be really good, go back and scrub out half your adjectives too.
When they are up on this hobby horse, galloping about and looking down their noses at the walking people, they will state, with granite certainty, that the one word you should never, ever use is the word Nice.
Nice is a nothing word, they will say, bleached of meaning. In some ways, this is right. Nice has so many meanings that it ends up often meaning nothing. If you were to write: it was a nice day, it would not tell the reader anything much. What kind of nice? Do you mean it was sunny, and you love the sun? Or do you mean it rained, and you were glad, because you were worrying about your garden or your crops? Or did something unexpected happen? Or had you been grieving a loss, and this was the first day since the death that you got out of bed without wanting to weep?
So, at first blush, it would seem to be the same if you wrote: he was a nice man. But, in fact, and this is where it gets interesting, that could be a very powerful statement. A nice day does not have many ramifications, but a nice man does.
Imagine if you invented a character who had a father who neglected her and a husband who betrayed her. Imagine if she were battered and beaten and bashed up by life and love. Imagine that she meets a new fellow, and lets herself try again. And it turns out that he is kind and thoughtful: he listens to her when she speaks; he notices when she is tired, and makes her supper without having to be asked; he lets her be silent when she needs not to talk.
Her friend asks her: what sort of a man is he? And she thinks for a moment, and sighs, and says: you know, he is a nice man.
That means something. It tells you a lot about the character. It says: she is not asking for much, she is not demanding a brilliant mind, or a high ambition, or a ton of money. She does not want castles in Spain. She has suffered from not niceness, and all she wants now is someone who is the opposite, to heal her bruised heart. The very smallness of the word is what makes it touching. It contains a subtext, and a hinterland.
Hemingway, who is the high master of the single syllable, and the simple, declarative sentence, and who won the Nobel Prize for it, uses nice a lot. He was never a man for the rules. In The Sun Also Rises, which is my favourite of his novels, he uses it in a most fascinating way.
In some instances, he employs it in the plain, simple prose for which he was famous:
‘Bayonne is a nice town. It is like a very clean Spanish town, and it is on a big river.’
This is a perfect example of what he did so well. Look at the small, simple words he uses: nice, clean, big. He does not go into raptures over the architecture, or paint a word picture, or describe exactly what the river looks like, and what colour the water is. He clears those sentences of all possible clutter. He places those plain words very deliberately and carefully, to summon up an atmosphere, a feeling, instead of hammering the reader with a long, descriptive passage. By keeping it so spare, he lets the reader feel the place, more than see it, and there is something brilliantly clever in that.
The big point about Hemingway, and why he is such a perfect example, is that you know that he used those particular words very much on purpose. He did not just roll out of bed with a hangover, grumpy after a fight with one of his many wives, and think: bugger, I can’t think of a word for Bayonne. I’ll just call it nice and hope no one will notice.
He did it with deliberation, because of the effect he wanted to create. Nice, clean, big. If you pay attention to the sound of the sentence, the rhythm of it, you see how well it works, on an almost tactile level. Bayonne is a big, singing word; it has a swoop in it. To juxtapose it with the small, short, usual ‘nice’ brings it into wonderful contrast. If he had said it was a beautiful town, or an ancient town, or had it steeped in anything, the effect would not have been nearly so telling. In this context, the placing of nice is the work of a master.
He does it in an even more brilliant manner when he is talking about Robert Cohn, one of the central characters. He says:
‘No one had ever made him feel he was a Jew, and hence any different from anyone else, until he went to Princeton. He was a nice boy, a friendly boy, and very shy, and it made him bitter.’
In this passage, the use of nice is not about atmosphere or rhythm. It does two very clever things. It contrasts the mild, bland ‘nice’ with the ugly shadow of anti-Semitism. By saying that Cohn was a nice boy, Hemingway throws into vivid contrast the absolute not niceness of those who think that Jews are different from anyone else, with its implication of not as good, when up against those preppy Princeton Wasps.
The second thing it does is just as clever. It carries an echo of Cohn’s roots. Oh, he’s a nice boy is just the kind of thing we might imagine a proud Jewish mother saying about her lovely son. We can catch the sound of it, even if we are not quite conscious of it. And again, it comes back to the contrast: as the mother says oh he’s a nice boy, the people who find Jewishness somehow wrong or frightening or to be disdained, are thinking the exact opposite.
The point about these two examples is not just that a master craftsman may use the banned word cleverly and well. The point, in a way, is not to deconstruct what he did and how it worked. The point is that when you use a word, however small and simple and derided it is, use it. Know why you choose it. Take it out and place it carefully. Make it work for you. Do it with thought and care. And once you have, stand by it.
One final thought on nice: the meaning I love the most is the one that means fine or subtle, as in ‘a nice distinction’. The reason it gives me so much satisfaction is that this usage takes a very familiar word and employs it in a slightly unfamiliar way. Hardly anyone talks about a nice distinction any more. It makes you sit up and take notice, and that is always a good thing.
I was going to do a long thing on authenticity today, but we had lots of questions, and a wonderful writing exercise, where my students dazzled and delighted, and so time trashed my lesson plan. It does not matter.
Instead, I spoke briefly of drafts. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever read comes from Anne Lamott, who wrote a beautiful and useful book on writing called Bird by Bird. She says: let yourself do a really crappy first draft. I seem to remember I banged on about this at length last year. I sometimes think that if I had to tell would-be writers only one, single thing it might be this.
The reason it is so important is that if you set off thinking even your first draft must be neat and correct and perfect, you will be hamstrung from the start. The angry critical voices will come barging in; you will constantly be telling yourself that’s no good, that makes no sense, that does not work, that is not right.
The big, baggy, messy first draft is where you may give yourself permission to fly. Try things out, take risks, scoot about all over the place. Here, you need not be proper and disciplined. The great secret is to vow to yourself, almost as a formal promise, perhaps even spoken aloud, that no one will ever see it. That way, you need feel no shame when you fall flat on your face, as you surely will. There will be things that do not work, paragraphs that are risible, characters who are absurd or flat as pancakes. It does not matter; no one will point and laugh because no one will see. You can calmly go back in the second draft and cut all the dross out.
The other good reason to do a bad first draft is that it gives you more material to work with. If you are putting no limits on yourself, then you will produce an awful lot more than if you were in critical mode. This gives you much more scope in your second draft.
It is then that you must make like Michelangelo and chip away at the block of stone to release the sculpture within. In some ways, the second draft is the secret of any book. It will be almost all cutting, and it is where you will find the good stuff. If you have not let yourself go crazy in the first draft, there will be less good stuff to work with.
So be brave. It is just between you and your silent room.
If you have any energy left for reading, there is a wonderful article by the great Lynne Truss on the life of a pedant, and why the apostrophe matters, here.
Too tired for pictures. Every year it amazes me how absolutely exhausting teaching is. It is fabulously rewarding, and my students are always thrilling and incredibly hard-working and brave. They always surprise me, and I love that. But when I come home I am so drained that I cannot remember what my name is. (It is also for this reason that I must apologise for clumsy sentences and the odd typing mistake in these posts; too shattered to check for strict correctness.) It makes me realise what heroines and heroes teachers are, and I take my hat off to every last one of them.
So here is just a single shot of the smiling Pigeon, today in elegant black and white, because you must have at least one beautiful thing to gaze on. Or, if I am putting on my pedantic hat, upon which to gaze:
The little tinker.