How I write

eyeI’ve been watching how I write recently. I’m quite dissatisfied sometimes with the result, not because of my use of language but at the way I express my ideas. This is what I’ve noticed.

I frequently begin with a phrase, sometimes, less formulated, an idea. This reoccurs to me from day to day, sometimes the same, sometimes in more elaborated form. Lying in bed before or after sleeping I have often woven quite elaborate theses or stories, sometimes impressing myself with the way I’ve developed the argument and with the references I’ve made.

Stories develop, often based on books I’ve been reading. There is an element of fantasy in the way I think these stories through, but they often contain quite developed conversations of some length between characters whom I can envisage clearly. I can remember when young lying in the bath and improvising an epic poem (Homer was big at that time) until forced to stop by the cold water.

Many of these creations dissipate as I go about my daily routine. But sometimes a phrase or argument is insistent and I write it down. By that time I have quite developed the idea. In an attempt to get everything down I resort to writing summaries, phrases, ideas in note form, and succeed in making a mess of what I believe was much more organised in my mind. The mind can of course develop and elaborate virtually instantly while the typing fingers proceed at a much slower pace.

My next task is to make sense of these fragments. I re-order, elaborate, insert phrases or ideas which I’ve remembered. And then, simply because I’ve written them down, new ideas, connections, extensions, occur to me. My argument takes unexpected turns. Allusions to what I have read spring to mind, and in they go.

What I have now is a Frankenstein’s monster, parts of my original concept, parts of my extended concept, and attempts to link everything together. My trouble now is that it all makes sense to me, as our own thought processes usually do. After all, the argument of what I am trying to say comes from my personal culture. But will it make sense to another? Will the leap I make from an analogy to an allusion to a work of art to a paradox bring anyone else to the same conclusion as myself?

This is clearly not the way to proceed with a complicated argument designed to persuade or inform others. Luckily, when all’s said and done, I rarely rise beyond stating the obvious. I am usually sure that not many would disagree with my viewpoint. Unfortunately I have often expressed it in a way which, though frequently striking, often obscures that meaning.

Now I don’t think that’s as bad as it sounds. I write in order to discuss with others the implications of my viewpoint. My audience I hope to be holding many of the same values and have many of the same interests as I do. I don’t mind being misunderstood, corrected, patronised or being used as the basis for another discussion.

The problem I think I’m grappling with is one of what overall form to use for my purpose. I may have no purpose. I’ve read widely and write facilely. Writing brings me immense pleasure.

To write seriously though I think you need two things. Firstly a psychic void that is eased by writing, a childlike love of creative play that heals a wound, for a time at least (I am aware that many who write for a market don’t have this need). Readers follow the same psychic path vicariously and participate in the same healing process. The second thing I think you need is a belief in an audience who can be persuaded by what you write. Earlier generations of course had a cultural elite for whom they wrote, but now there is a universal market of varying cultures and the position is much more uncertain. Marketing has entered the game as a factor: the audience has become both sophisticated and knowledgeable, and yet manipulated.

Another factor has entered the equation too: the internet. Just as what you write in a letter and what you write in an email are different, or differently expressed, so what you write can be published instantly on the web in a pdf book, or a blog. And what you write and publish instantly is not likely to stem from any deep psychic process. It’s more likely to be chat.

Conventional publishing is overproducing while the reading audience is shrinking and the markets are segmenting. Thousands and thousands of novels are published every year and read by only a few. Everybody wants to be a best seller even when that effort compromises your creative urge. Is it better to write what you need to and remain unread or write for a market and remain unfulfilled?

I’ve given an example I see of how my writing develops in the process of writing. It’s all very relevant to me but I’m sure what I’ve written must seem to be wandering from the point.

I’ve not touched on my style. Too balanced to be striking, too wide a vocabulary to be easy to read, too contrived at times to be worth reading.

I probably need to write not about how I write but why I write. But I couldn’t write anything at all about that.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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