WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

What makes for good writing?

Posted in Fundamentals, Uncategorized by Adair Jones on March 13, 2013

Books-02

What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.

A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.

Practice

In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:

“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”

Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”

These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.

Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.

Trust

If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.

This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:

  • Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
  • Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
  • Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
  • Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.

Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.

Judgment

Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.

If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing.  It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right?  How much reshaping? How much editing?

Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.

It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.

Conclusion

The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.

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Holiday Reading

Posted in Musings..., review, Uncategorized, Wanderings by Adair Jones on January 7, 2010

As I prepared for a week on a houseboat with my family of five, I found myself unable to let go of my ‘desk’.   I packed it in miniature: two notebooks with works-in-progress, a folder of articles related to my work, three books from my current reading list, as well as recent editions of The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker.  I even brought along my laptop, knowing full well that the electricity, space, and privacy required to write were all unlikely.

Two hours out of the marina, dusk fell at the moment we chugged into a mud bank and came to a standstill.  There was hope though.  The tide was rising.  Surely we would float off, we all agreed optimistically.  We made dinner and played board games and went to bed early.  My husband woke me at 2.00 am.

“Listen.”

Nothing.   The comforting sound of water slapping against the hull had ceased.  We were perched on mudflats two hundred metres in all directions.  Oops.

The morning tide was higher and we broke free.  After strong coffee and in good spirits, we headed off towards clearer waters.  Then, the motor failed.  We spent the day drifting, waiting for the mechanics, playing monopoly and backgammon, joking about our ‘holiday’.  Through it all, although I never unzipped the backpack with my books and notebooks, I was comforted by the fact that it was with me.

Eventually, it was determined that the motor could not be fixed.  The mechanics towed us back to the marina, returned our money, and sent us home.  Back in Brisbane, we brought all the bags in from the car.

“Don’t unpack.  We’re leaving in the morning.”

After some calls, my husband had found a replacement vacation: The Hyatt-Regency in Coolum, in luxurious accommodation that was the complete opposite to our broken-down little houseboat in the Gold Coast’s Broadwater.  Unfortunately, the backpack with my work didn’t make it into the car that second time, and I arrived in our luxury house without anything to read.

I wasn’t panic stricken or anything.  We were close enough to civilization for me to find a book or two.  Intellectually, I knew that I could always buy a notebook to write in.  But I did have a flustered moment or two.  Not having my bag with me recalled other times in my life—traveling in Thailand and Egypt, for example—when I’d read everything I brought with me, and I was at the mercy of the books others had left behind in the guest houses I stayed in.  There was always a rickety shelf in the lobby with books you could borrow or swap.  The Clan of the Cave BearBonfire of the Vanities, something always by Agatha Christie, Danielle Steele, Tom Robbins—these were the things you’d find.  There would be a Penguin or two, which I’d always scramble for.   They were usually something I’d read already—Jane Eyre or The Picture of Dorian Gray—but always worth a second (or third!) read.

At the beach house in Coolum, with an evening stretching out in front of me with nothing to read, I began fossicking for the books others left behind.  This is what I found:  four gossip magazines—an OK! from November and another from February, plus two New Ideas, both from 2008; Mistress of the Game by Sidney Sheldon; Dead Man Running, an insider’s story of one of the world’s most feared motorcycle gangs; Please Explain by Karl Kruszelnicki; Storm Tactics, a handbook for survival in extreme conditions; a book by Jackie Collins; Nip ‘n’ Tuck by Kathy Lette; and A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher, someone I’d never heard of.

I immediately rejected the Sheldon and the Collins.  They would only make me cranky about the publishing industry and the undemanding reading public.  I wasn’t too keen on the motorcycle story either.  Even though it was non-fiction, I didn’t expect the writing to be captivating enough to hold my attention through the distractions of a family holiday.  Considering our recent experience on the houseboat, I put Storm Tactics aside to have a look at.  Dr. Karl always has something interesting to say, but a quick glance revealed that his book was directed to a younger audience.  That left Lette and the newcomer, Fisher.

Nip ‘n’ Tuck is the perfect holiday reading—funny, shallow, satirical, perpetuating stereotypes—one of those ‘rollicking’ reads everyone refers to as a book for the beach.  This was my opportunity.  I would probably never encounter this book again.  But I also took down the Fisher book.  From the cover, it looked to be a western, not really my thing, but it was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, and this made me curious.

It was the surprise of the week.  I read the opening paragraphs and continued on to chapter two and three and four, mesmerized.  Over the next few days, I stopped for meals and playtime with my family, but part of me remained in the vivid world Fisher creates.  A Sudden Country is set along the Oregon Trail in 1847, the fourth year in which hundreds of families crossed the Missouri River and left the United States for the Oregon Territory.

The story centres around the genteel Lucy Mitchell, who sets out reluctantly with her impassioned, idealistic husband Israel and their five children.  The well-stocked wagons that departed from Iowa are steadily depleted of supplies.  Like many, Lucy foolishly neglects to ration in the early months, and they face weeks of harsh deprivation as the journey progresses.  “Remember apples?” one of the children asks another.

Through the journey west, the pioneers are similarly stripped of ideals, materialism, their former selves.  In one scene, faced with a treacherous river crossing, the wagons must be lightened.  No one hesitates.  With seasoned pragmatism, they dump the Belgian carpets, the carved dining set, the incidental tables, hutches, settees, crystal chandeliers, and the most treasured items of all: the books.  The children amuse themselves by playing house.  They spread the rugs and arrange the furniture into open-air rooms.  Looking back as her wagon crosses the river, Lucy sees the artefacts of her old life grow smaller and smaller and finally disappear, left to snakes and grizzlies, wind and sand.

This is a gorgeous love story told in poetic, dreamlike language.  It’s also a tale of grit and survival, impeccably researched.  That Fisher combines such a delicate style with such detailed historical facts shows her artistry as a writer.  I grew more and more curious about her.

I’ve since learned a few things.  She’s directly descended from Lucy Mitchell, the real life figure on whom she bases her female protagonist.  She’s worked as a wrangler, teacher, farmer and carpenter, all of which is evident in the depth and detail of her storytelling.  A few years ago, Fisher stumbled across some documents—a couple of letters, a child’s account of the crossing—which sent her on her own journey of discovery.

When asked about her writing experience in an interview, Fisher, who’s had no formal training, cites the books she loves as her most pronounced influence.  She names Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier and Carol Shields as the writers she most admires.  Their influence is present in Fisher’s shimmering prose and the underlying emotion of her characters.  Most interesting to me, however, is Fisher’s claim to be particularly indebted to Patrick White.  The moment I read this, I could see the ways in which White has influenced how she depicts the consciousness and self-consciousness of her characters.  It makes me hanker for works by Australian writers who use White as a model and for new sweeping novels about the early days of this country.

I finished A Sudden Country the day before my holiday was over.  During a swim in the ocean and over a long afternoon walk, I let the mood of this moving story hang over me.  Later when I packed up, I was tempted to tuck the book in my suitcase.  Then, I thought of the next guests.  I imagined that the very next week, another person will arrive, pick up this book from the pile, wonder about the little-known author, read the opening pages, and experience the delightful surprise of being transported to another world entirely.

PS  I don’t think I will ever end up reading Nip ‘n’ Tuck, but with happy surprises like A Sudden Country on the shelf, I don’t mind.

In search of…the road in literature

Posted in Musings... by Adair Jones on July 13, 2009

artwork_images_754_437830_bill-henson

The Road

The ‘road’ in literature is a theme, a symbol, an organising principle.  It can be said that every work of literature, like every road, offers up a unique journey.  We’re readers and travellers alike, reading the road, travelling through pages and passages and words.

OdysseyPic

The earliest known example of ‘the road’ in Western literature appears in one of the earliest known works: the 12,000-line Greek poem, known as The Odyssey was written by Homer in the 8th Century B.C.E. and chronicles the adventures of Ulysses as he makes his way home after the Trojan Wars.  It is commonly thought that by listening to the stories in the poem, the ancient Greeks learned standards of honourable behaviour, which became the foundation of their society.

travels of Marco Polo

The Book of Wonders by Marco Polo records his impression of the long years of travels in Persia, China and Indonesia, which were undertaken between 1271 and 1298.  It’s said that Christopher Columbus carried a heavily annotated copy of the book as he attempted to reach the East Indies by sea two centuries later.

william_blake_dantes_inferno_whirlwind_of_lovers

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, written between 1308 and 1321, is considered one of the central works of Western literature.  In it, Dante travels to hell, purgatory and paradise.

the canterbury tales

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, two of them in prose, the rest in verse. A group of the faithful on a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral seek diversion by telling stories to one another. In the voices of characters that are representative of social ‘types’, Chaucer brilliantly exposes human faults and frailties.

Ruggiero_rescuing_angelica_Jean_Auguste_Dominique_Ingres

In Ariosto’s long epic poem Orlando Furioso (1532), Orlando suffers from unrequited love for the pagan princess Angelica, who traipses around the countryside trying to avoid him and all other men.  Ariosto pays little attention to historical and geographical accuracy: the action moves from Japan to the Hebrides and even to the moon and the bottom of the sea.

PicassoDonQuixoteSancho

Cervantes’ The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha was published in 1604. Alonso Quixano renames himself ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’, dons an old suit of armor, and designates a neighbouring farm girl as his lady-love, Dulcinea del Toboso (who, by the way, knows nothing of his ardour), and sets off on a quest. Through the use of verbal playfulness and by exploring the individualism of his characters, Cervantes helped move beyond the narrow literary conventions of the chivalric romance literature.

huck-and-jim-on-raft

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published by Mark Twain in 1884 is one of the first American novels to be written in the vernacular and has become an enduring image of escape and freedom.  Huck Finn and Jim, a runaway slave, journey on the Mississippi River, Their adventures satirise antebellum society of the American South, racism and contemporary attitudes towards slavery.

the road not taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference.

‘The Road Not Taken’ is a poem by Robert Frost that has become a figure of speech.


light in August

In Light in August (William Faulkner, 1932), the road take on central importance.  In the opening scene, Lena Grove walks along, pregnant, about to enter Jefferson, thinking, “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.”  At the end of the novel, less than two weeks later, she has given birth to a baby and still has not found the father of her child as she sits on a wagon leaving Jefferson and says, “My, my. A body does get round. Here we ain’t been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.”

kerouac-scroll

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was originally written in scroll form, one continuous sheet written in just about 3 weeks in April 1951 from his Manhattan apartment.  Kerouac prefigured the longings of hordes of youngsters who, following the example of his characters, took to the highways in search of freedom and adventure.

xanadu

From Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972): “In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo-Tartar emperor and Venetian traveller. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon. Marco Polo diverts the emperor with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, hidden cities. Soon it becomes clear that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.” –italo calvino


pirsigbike

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig (1974) was originally rejected by 121 publishers.  It later sold over four million copies. Ostensibly about a 17 day motorcycle journey across the US taken by the narrator and his son, Chris, the narration swerves into philosophical discussions of epistemology, ethics, emotions, the philosophy of science, and the metaphysics of quality.

the road, cormac mccarthy

The Road, 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, was inspired by a visit to El Paso Texas he took with his own son.  It’s a post-apocalyptic fable of a journey towards the sea taken by a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unnamed cataclysm that destroyed all civilization and, apparently, most life on earth. The novel was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006.

What makes for good writing?

Posted in Fundamentals by Adair Jones on January 30, 2009

What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.

A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.

Practice

In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:

“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”

Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”

These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.

Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.

Trust

If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.

This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:

  • Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
  • Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
  • Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
  • Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.

Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.

Judgment

Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.

If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing.  It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right?  How much reshaping? How much editing?

Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.

It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.

Conclusion

The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.