Sitting in the blinding sun this morning, as a warm, rushing wind hurled itself over the hill and the horses grazed quietly in the light, I said: ‘I’m very good at sentences. It’s a whole book I find difficult.’
This is true, although it is breaking all the rules to state it so baldly. In dear old Blighty, you are not supposed to say, out loud, that you are good at something. You may think it, very, very quietly, alone in your silent room, but you may not say it. Because that is boasting and bragging and not at all called for. (There is still, even now, the very faint implication that it is what They Do Abroad.)
And you know the even more awful thing? I’m really proud that I’m good at sentences. I love being good at sentences. The fear and loathing comes when I have to string them all together and think about pacing and narrative drive and plot and NOT GOING OFF ON TANGENTS. But a single sentence – ah, I can play with that, and make it mine, and make it sing. I can break all the rules and have pure fun. I may begin with a preposition or leave out the verb altogether or make free with adverbs, and it doesn’t matter, because I’m listening to the syncopated rhythms in my head.
The sentence fairy did not just pitch up over my crib and scatter magic syntax dust. My early sentences were awful: derivative and uncertain and filled with a yearning to be anyone but myself. (Mostly Evelyn Waugh and Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker.) The sentences grew strong because I worked at them over many, many years. Someone asked on the internet yesterday: if you were to give writing advice in six words, what would it be? I thought: I can do it in three words. Practice, practice, practice.
Almost immediately afterwards, I read an article in a national newspaper by a non-writer. This person was highly intelligent, very articulate, and was saying something profound and important. But the sentences lay lifeless on the page, flat and flaccid. They weren’t bad, and the informing mind behind them was good, but the words had no vitality, as if they had been bought in a job lot, second-hand, off the shelf.
I think of words as aerial things. I imagine throwing them up to the sky and watching them fall back to earth, wondering where they will land. Good writing takes immense discipline, but it starts in play. There must be something antic and vivid and child-like even, in the initial approach. It is the language of Shakespeare and Milton one is messing with, as I say to myself every morning, but at the same time, it is a living, shifting thing. Too many rules and mores make it turgid and po-faced, and that is when the tired phrases shrivel and die.
I wasn’t going to write anything here today. It’s a lovely, sunny Sunday, and I was going to have the entire day off. But then I started this train of thought, about sentences and why I love them. Even though I wrestle and wrangle with bashing through to the completed article of 100,000 words, and even though I am at the stage where the deadline looms and I am haunted by the fear of not being good enough, I can come back to the simple fact of the single sentence. I can do that.
When I talk about writing, I often say: I can carry a tune. What I mean by this is that I shall never be able to produce the dream book which lives in my head. I shall never be as good as my heroes. I don’t expect I shall ever overcome my narrative weakness, merely paper over the cracks. But I can write one good sentence, on a going day, when the light is coming from the right direction. And that is not nothing. And for some peculiar reason, I wanted to record that thought, because it seemed to me to be a little metaphor for life.
Are in fact from the last couple of days, because I forgot to take my camera out this morning. But it is the same dazzling sunshine.
Even though this one is rather out of focus, I include it because it gives a sense of the light and the colours down in the field:
The dear old duchess has had a very good roll, and is covered in mud, but even despite that, her coat is still a glorious, blazing red:
I know there have been rather a lot of these free-grazing pictures lately, but it is one of the finest sights of my day. Each morning, I let the red mare out into the set-aside. It is not fenced. It’s about six acres of wild ground, with a treeline which forms a natural boundary around three sides. She could, if she really wanted to, trot off to Tarland. But she does not want to. She merely mooches about in absolute contentment in the long grass, and then, when it is time for breakfast, allows me to lead her gently back to her field. I love it because it gives her a sense of freedom, and when I watch her from a distance, I think she looks as if she is roaming over the prairies of Wyoming. (Too much My Friend Flicka at a formative age.) It is a daily pleasure of the heart, and of aesthetics too:
That’s the look which makes my heart flip in my chest:
The little pony is so white in the light that the camera hardly has enough pixels to capture her:
Of course, after all this, I laugh at my own absurdity. For all that I take pride in being able to string words together, the Dear Readers bring me gently down to earth – one of the most recent comments simply says ‘I always like the pictures the best’. Prose be damned. This makes me hoot with laughter. And probably is another good lesson for life, as well as being a fine corrective for any incipient swishiness.