Blunt Force English
Using a Quill or Using a Keyboard
Tom Robbins, author of such books as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Jitterbug Perfume, has a unique style of building books and storylines. He adds subplots that seem to be unrelated to the main story, or tangential to the theme as diversions and comic relief. Readers familiar with Even Cowgirls Get the Blues will recognize his absurdist chapter breaks, but those who aren’t fans of his work find it off-putting that he doesn’t keep his stories on track.
In Still Life With Woodpecker, he developed at least two subplots that seemed totally unrelated to the story. One subplot, the illustrations on a pack of filterless Camel cigarettes, found its way into the main plot towards the end of the book and gave the main character a revelation that was necessary for the plot’s resolution. The other subplot, that of his difficulties with using an electric typewriter while writing the book, he used to illustrate what I think is an important development in the evolution of modern English writing style.
English has become mechanistic. Various composition teachers have coached me that, in order for my readers to engage in my points, I must follow a trend towards simplification and reduce my use of flowery and poetic language. I remember discussing the work of William Styron in his books Sophie’s Choice and The Confession of Nat Turner and how I love the way that his language flows so that the reader is enveloped in the story. The person with whom I was discussing it complained that Styron has tendency to show off his vocabulary, to “use a fifty-cent word when a ten-cent word will do.”
I was puzzled by this response, frankly. My goal has always been to stretch my vocabulary when both reading and writing. I love the use of words and the play of sentence structure, and I find that my favorite writers have the ability to clarify complex concepts both fictional and factual by pulling in words and phrases that are not in the common vernacular of everyday English. Styron is one of those writers who drives me occasionally to the dictionary but more often teaches me new vocabulary using context.
This is where reading is fun for me, and writing for you is more challenging.
The tools of writing have changed rapidly since the middle of the 19th century and the development of keyboards to convey thoughts. We use a keyboard layout designed specifically to inhibit the speed of typing. Early typewriter designers found that skilled typists were typing faster than the strikers could handle, so keys frequently jammed. The layout that we have on the QWERTY keyboard places the most commonly used letters in English on the left, so that right-handed typists are slightly shackled.
Prior to the development of typewriters, people wrote by hand. The process of writing was directly connected to the person and the paper. Yes, it was tedious. Yes, people with poor penmanship (I’m looking at you, Andrew Jackson!) were often handicapped in communicating. It seems to me, though, that because writers were more closely connecting their thoughts to the paper, they were more expressive. They had a “feel” for what they were writing, and it seems to me that quill pens had something to do with that.
Classical literature reads as though the words and language had been “tickled” from the writer by the feather of the quill. When I read “The Lady of Shalott,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, I imagine him at a writing desk with a goose quill pen in hand deliberating to come up with these two stanzas:
Only reapers, reaping early,
In among the bearded barley
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly;
Down to tower’d Camelot;
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, ” ‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.”
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
In my observation, modern writing has lost that tickle and tease in the effort to push writing into a crammed little box of clarity for the most common reader. In the mix of journalistic and business writing, we are taught to reduce our verbiage and to let the reader skim the works while still getting the full gist of our themes and plots. Cut back! Clarify! Stop with the flowery phrases!
I have found that this has had an effect on my own writing. Not only in the essays and posts I write here, but in the poems I write. I struggle to make them romantic, or to convey the depth of my meaning. I write with a keyboard, and I have instant feedback and I can backspace as I need to but I am afraid that the “teasing” is remote and I am dragging the muse along pissing and moaning as I use Blunt Force English.
I have a hard time shifting writing styles between what is needed for work and what is needed for creating more interesting pieces, such as those I write for Quiche Moraine, or even the poetry I write. My vocabulary has shrunk as I seek similes. Perhaps I need to go back to writing by hand.
Towards the conclusion of Still Life With Woodpecker, Robbins the writer has added Robbins the writer as a character who has gotten fed up with using a fancy new electric typewriter because it doesn’t give him the language that he needs. He had already discarded his manual typewriter, and so he finishes the book with handwriting. He is satisfied with the way he has become a writer again.
My birthday is a the end of August. A quill pen is on my wishlist, as are writing tablets.
This entry was posted on Sunday, February 21st, 2010 at 12:01 pm and is filed under Art, Mike Haubrich. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.