Great writers were not always at ease with words

Great writers were not always at ease with words

By M. SAAD | | 21 May, 2016
For all the God-like powers it can grant an average mortal, writing remains one of the toughest creative exercises of all time, as is proven by the struggles of literary greats, writes M. Saad.

A problem that every would-be writer encounters early in his or her career is how to find one’s voice — a style that is distinct, lucid, simple and seemingly effortless. Most importantly, a voice that is characteristic and unique. The journey of every great writer begins with learning from earlier writers. So a writer embarks on this journey by imitating those other writers whose works he admires the most. Even someone as original as Henry Miller began this way.

A recurring problem which becomes an obstacle in the pursuit of one’s writerly endeavours has to do with the lack of belief in one’s own writing.

It remains debatable whether good writing or writing as an art can ever be taught. A well-composed page of text is  always the symbol of aritistic achievement, is earned through hard labour and patience alone. But this doesn’t mean that we subscribe to the notion that writing can’t be taught.

Examples abound in the literary world of writers who were once apprentices, choosing to the ropes from more experienced men of letters.

We have a great example in the French writer Guy de Maupassant, who underwent training under the master of his time, Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert spent several years coaching Maupassant in the art of seeing, much before allowing his student to tackle directly the art of writing.

Flaubert would remind his pupil that “talent is a long patience”. Maupassant writes in a preface to his Pierre and Jean that his master would tell him time and again: “It is necessary to examine long and carefully anything you wish to express in order to discover an aspect of it which has never been seen or noted by anyone. There is, in everything, an unexplored area, because we are accustomed to use eyes clouded by what others before us have seen. The slightest thing has something unknown about it. We must find it.” Although Maupassant was not allowed to publish anything by his master, the former still gave in to the temptation and published some of his juvenilia under a pseudonym.

“Whatever you want to say,” he would later quote from Flaubert’s teachings, “there is only one word to express it, only one verb to give it a movement, only one adjective to qualify it. You must search for that word, that verb, that adjective, and never be content with an approximation, never resort to tricks, even clever ones, and never have recourse to verbal sleight-of-hand to avoid a difficulty.” When Maupassant finally published Boule de Suif in 1880 under his name — arguably his most famous short story which is based on the theme of the Franco-Prussian War — he immediately established his reputation as an emerging voice in the French literary world. So much so that his story which was published among the collection of six short stories called Les Soirees de Medan, even outclassed Emile Zola's story that opened the collection.

It is said that J.D. Salinger would shut himself in a room for days. We have several instances where writers almost went out of their minds, thinking of nothing else but of their tale and characters during most of their waking hours. It gets even worse when it comes to the writing part.

Zola himself acknowledged that Maupassant’s tale was better than his own and was the best among the six. Flaubert, who died in less than a month after the publication of the book, called it “a masterpiece of writing, comedy and observation”.

Creation of good literary fiction requires a certain discipline on the part of the writer. He has to sit in a room day in and day out, talking to an imaginary reader and trying to entertain him with his tale.

It is said that J.D. Salinger would shut himself in a room for days. We have several instances where writers almost went out of their minds, thinking of nothing else but of their plot and characters during most of their waking hours. It gets even worse when it comes to the writing part. Ernest Hemingway is known to have struggled with a paragraph for three straight days. Until finally he managed to get it right, the way he intended it to be. Somebody like Colette — who expressed herself with such ease — was known to write everything over and over again. She would often devote the whole morning to a single page. The effect of ease in writing comes only through arduous efforts.

But not everything is bleak about this lonesome business of writing. There are some good aspects (apart from monetary perks) which intrigue millions around the world, inspiring them to pick up the pen, despite the hardships that come along with the profession. Writing fiction at least, gives a writer a certain sense of liberty, where he has the power to conjure a world of his own, bring to life personalities or characters of his imagination, subject them to happiness or sorrow, ordain them death — almost like a God. A writer through the setting and atmosphere of his work successfully transports the reader beyond the written word into a world of his own.  It remains perhaps the only medium of art which resembles life so closely.

The writer is in control of his world all the time, imaginary it may be. He knows what’s going to happen in his world tomorrow, day after and so forth. He can end the tale of his world in a thousand different ways because he is the master of his world. A good writer has a certain tempo about the way his imagery unravels before the eyes of the reader and his each sentence has a rhythm of its own. To be a good writer, one is also required to be a craftman, a seer and a rabble-rouser all at once. And it’s the craftman that must show up day after day at work even when the seer and the rabble-rouser fail to turn up.

In the American writer John Updike’s case — who began writing for The New Yorker magazine the very year (1954) he graduated from Harvard and who also happens to be only the third American to have won a second Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category — it was the little-known British novelist Henry Green, whose prose helped Updike to commence a new world. For Updike, Green’s use of language was like no other writer Updike had read earlier. Nothing had the same effect on him as Green’s language did. It was for him a new kind of prose which reached out and actually touched the object.

For Updike, Marcel Proust (whom he read in English) and Green were the two writers who helped him find his own voice. Thus, every would-be writer with aspirations, must read his head off until he is able to find the writer who can help him find his own voice. And he should read for himself and not for others — should read Henry James, Miller, Joyce; then probably switch to Lawrence or Eliot or the Brontë sisters, Flaubert, Orwell, Hardy until finally, he finds the writer who can inspire him in his own writing.

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