Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book Notes: "The Summing Up" (no. 1)

One of the things I'd like to do in the resurrected version of this blog is use this space to register some thoughts about the various books that I'm reading. The hope is that formalizing my reactions will help me to retain more of what I read. Plus, having a searchable repository of such writing might allow me to draw on it for more formal projects down the road. What I have in mind are not full-length reviews of the books but rather a space to air reactions and thoughts that are inspired by what I'm reading. In any case . . .

I'm working my way through W. Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up, a quasi-memoir that deals less with the the ins and outs of his life and concentrates much more on the craft of writing and his growth and development as a writer. I find, thus far, that much of what he says resonates with my own take on what constitutes good writing (as well as how to achieve it). But thus far, he has said one thing that doesn't sit quite as well. When discussing what he takes to be the chief causes of unclarity in writing, he says:

Another cause of obscurity is that the writer himself is not quite sure of his meaning. He has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind, and it is natural enough that he should not find a precise expression for a confused idea. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write. The pen originates the thought. The disadvantage of this, and indeed it is a danger against which the author must always be on his guard, is that there is a sort of magic in the written word. The idea acquires substance by taking on a visible nature, and then stands in the way of its own clarification. But this sort of obscurity merges very easily into the willful (p. 24).

Now I know precisely the kind of thing Maugham has in mind since it is prevalent in undergraduate philosophy papers (as well as much "postmodern theology", literary theory, and, to be fair, a good deal of academic writing in general). The idea seems to be that just because words are formulated into things that look like sentences, and can therefore be recited aloud in something resembling a language, a cogent thought must be present--indeed, a thought worth pondering and mulling over. And if one has trouble determining exactly what a giving string of words means, then the problem is assumed to lie with the reader--perhaps the thought is just too deep for simple minds to comprehend.

I take it that this is what Maugham means when he talks about the "magic" that some take to reside in the written word. Even the most muddled of thoughts seem to take on a life of their own when they are put down on paper. One can take on scores of acolytes simply in virtue of having written something. Fair enough. Point taken and heartily agreed with.

But there is another sense in which I think the written word does have a kind of magical quality--a quality that makes it almost impossible to think clearly without the possibility of writing. There is something about straining to put one's thoughts in written form and then seeing them mirrored back to oneself that begins a progression towards deeper and clearer thought. I do not know how many times I have had experiences of the following sort:

1. I thought I knew what I wanted to say but in the process of writing, realized I didn't.
2. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to say but in the process of writing, discovered the thoughts for which I had been searching.
3. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say and the process of writing helped me realize that there was still something rolling around in my head but I hadn't quite gotten it yet.

I think that the mistake is in thinking that writing is always a final product. If one treats it that way, and therefore thinks that just because one puts words on paper, one is done with the process, then one is likely to end up with incomprehensible muddle. But when certain acts of writing are viewed as integral to the process of thinking, then the written word does take on a kind of magic.

If this is right, then it means that we have to think differently about different kinds of writing. I would not always want to commit myself fully to things I say in this blog, for example. Posts here are, quite often, writings at the earlier stages of thought. On the other hand, when I send off a paper to be published in a journal, then ideally, the process should be further along.


NonVoxPop said...

So, in your opinion (and I think we'd all agree you're a hell of a writer), how does one achieve good writing?

AJK said...

Thanks for the kind words. As for achieving good writing, I think its just a matter of being intentional about it (i.e., consciously thinking about the quality of your writing) and then writing and reading a ton.

All of the writers I've read who talk explicitly about the craft of writing talk about the work it involves to make writing sound effortless and natural. That means, more than anything, rewriting and revising and then rewriting and revising again (and again and again).

Maugham also has an interesting "formula" for setting goals in writing. He says good writing is characterized by (in order of importance) lucidity, simplicity, and euphony. Above all, the thought must be clear. Once the thought is clear, one wants to try and say it as simply as possible (while preserving its clarity). And then one wants to make it sound good to the ear (as much as is possible given the other two priorities). I take that to be pretty good advice.

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