Monday, 14 November 2011

Writing as Mosaic, or: Grammar in the World of Fiction

This month is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which means that a lot of people are spending their time committing words to paper, or screen as it were, this month. While I am not one of them, I nevertheless thought it appropriate to discuss writing in this week's post.

As mentioned already in late June, I taught a creative writing class this summer, with a focus on more sustained types of writing (or lengthier writing, if you will). In the wake of this, I have pondered some issues concerning writing more than I normally do. One of the things that keeps popping up in my head is the question of the relation between the writer and language. This issue is deeply linked to questions of writing as art and/or craft.

Is writing something that can be taught? Can it even be learned? Well, obviously no human being was ever born with the ability to write, so the question might seem null and void even before we phrase it; yet we do struggle with two separate views on the writer: that of the artist born with the gift of genius and creativity, and that of the craftsman who has learned the mechanics of the writing process. Personally, I do not think this is an either-or binary. There are people who seem to have been born with a certain talent, to be sure, but they tend to benefit from learning the craft of their talent. Similarly, people without any talent for it never seem to make as prosperous use of the craft they do learn as those in the first category do. Needless to say, really, neither category is black and white either, so it is not a case of having talent or not, or having learned the craft or not, but rather one of degrees in both areas, and how they intersect in any given writer.

So, where am I going with this? Well, the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to see the process of writing through a metaphor of a mosaic or even Lego. A writer has to start with an idea, but that idea needs to be communicated to the world. This means we need to apply language, but not just any language. Fiction writing certainly requires use of regular language, but also a higher level of grammar; narrative grammar, if you will. Especially the longer your writing becomes, the more important it is to understand the inherent structures of narrative and how to use them.

Does this mean that there is really only craft and no creativity? Of course not, and this is where the metaphor of the mosaic comes in handy. The craft is all about learning to recognise narrative structures and understand grammar in practice. The pieces of mosaic or Lego is language and how to bind these elements together is the narrative structures I talk about. The creative part lies in deciding on the motif you want the mosaic to show, and that could be just about anything a person could imagine (not even the sky is the limit here). However, even if you have the greatest motif imaginable in mind, chances are that your mosaic will fall apart, be jagged and jarring, or not even be remotely akin to what was in your mind. This is where technique, or craft, comes in. It is a tool for the writer to analyse what needs to be done in any given writing situation.

I am not suggesting that all writing problems have one singular solution, far from it, but you would not start building a house without a blueprint and expect a solid structure at the end of the process. Similarly you would not expect a great house if you had no understanding of the materials used in constructing it. And yet, a lot of people seem to think that writers can generate organic wholes without any other effort than sitting down to type. Sure, there are people who work more freely than others who plan and plot meticulously, but I do not think it a great exaggeration that those in the former category often have more rewriting to do in the other end. If not more, then at the very least of a very different (and arguably more substantial) kind.

It is conceivable that some people internalise such structuring, possibly by having a talent for that, to a point where this process becomes less visible, and therefore seemingly working itself out. Just as some people start with a better ear for language.

When all is said and done, there are many ways of reaching the same result here, as long as one understands what the process is supposed to be about; that it is about understanding the components and what will hold them together.

A case in point would be the creative use of language. Grammatical correctness quite naturally does not have the same function in fiction writing as in, say, academic writing. Fiction writing does not frown on sentence fragments per se; it does not disavow any writer who feels compelled to break every capitalisation rule known to man. That having been said, writers must really know their language, because the style does effect the reading of a text.

Sentence fragments are a good example. They can be used with great efficiency, because punctuation does not always mimic thought or speech effectively when grammatically correct. But if sentence fragments causes grammatical reference to be lost, a text suddenly starts breaking apart. In essence, this means that while writers do not need to adhere to grammatical correctness, they need to be aware of it. They need to understand the difference between creating a staccato effect or contemplative pauses, and losing coherence in the text. As I said to some of my students on occasion, while one might want to have a reader go back and reread a sentence for purely aesthetic reasons,* one never ever wants any reader to back because the language is too unclear for something basic, like who did what to whom, to be understood. Simply put, the latter is just sloppy work.

Similarly, while there are plenty of grammatical "incorrectness" that does not cause such breakdowns, as a rule of thumb, it is still good to know and understand what one is working against (i.e. the existing, accepted grammar) and also to contemplate what not adhering to any given grammatical rule means. To illustrate, one can generate a strong character voice, a certain idiolect, by creating a slightly skewed grammar for that character, but one also needs to understand that that idiolect will have bearing on how readers interpret the character. And that is the important key here: how we express ourselves in writing (and not just fiction writing) does have effects. Breaking the right grammatical rule can have a great effect in any text, but unless one operates by blind luck, it usually helps to at least have a clue as to what one is doing.

At the end of the day, it is probably true that not everyone can be a great writer. But I would argue that it is equally true that everyone (even great writers) can become better.

* I would also argue, in particular in narrative terms, that sentences that are too aesthetically pleasing (i.e. that causes your reader to go back to reread them) can be very counter-productive. After all, narrative is all about generating sequences of events and actions; continuous breaks in the narrative flow are therefore not necessarily the best way of achieving a coherent whole.

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