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.

Tickling a Writer's Muse

Tickling a Writer's Muse

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.

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12 Responses to “Blunt Force English”

  1. February 21st, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Is there annything you’ve said here that could not have been equall well said in the 140 character limit set by Twitter? Well, if you ask me …

  2. February 21st, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Mike Haubrich, FCD says:

    @ greg #quichemoraine Pens make for better writing.

    Or perhaps we could have a contest for our readers to try their hand at Twitterizing QM?

  3. February 21st, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Azkyroth says:

    How does this hypothesis account for people afflicted with moderate dysgraphia yet possessing a fondness for elaborate and sophisticated sentence constructs and non-infantile vocabulary? I have very much the opposite experience: producing handwriting that remains legible even to myself if I come back and look over it a week later is so demanding of my concentration and taxing to the muscles of my hand that it largely crowds out anything resembling creative faculty, and the difficulty involved with rewriting a passage for whose substantive content I have subsequently formulated a more eloquent and memorable phrasing consistently undermines the quality of my final output; when “better” is physically painful at even the paragraph level, the category of “good enough” broadens almost incredibly.

    On a related note, people who insist that independent clauses joined by a semicolon are a “run-on sentence” should be obligated to repeat the entirety of primary and secondary school once for every instance of their voicing this idiotic misconception. Similarly, “run-on sentence” is a specific grammatical construct, neither the denotation nor proper connotation of which equates to “a sentence that the reader subjectively thinks is too long.”

  4. February 21st, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I rely far too often on run-on sentences, but I find them fulfilling in an odd sense.

  5. February 21st, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Ellie says:

    I had thought a run-on sentence was exactly the opposite of one containing a semi-colon, that is, a sentence where a semi-colon should have been used but containing a comma instead. Was I wrong?

  6. February 22nd, 2010 at 6:29 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Having developed arthritis in my pen-holding hand thumb, I cannot agree that holding a quill pen would be a good thing. Pain is not my muse.

    My first drafts are always full of run-on sentences. I go back and correct only the ones that are annoying to me. Short sentences, like short words, are for punch and emphasis. A lot of the time I find that the 50-cent word is the one that works to convey what I need, and I often graduate to dollar words in my conversation. It only grates if you use them wrongly, or if you are so insecure in your intellect that you can’t bother to hit the dictionary when necessary.

    All these are stylistic points. They won’t matter if you have nothing to say of interest. Therefore, Mike, keep writing. You have ideas. I’ll keep reading.

    Sometimes the experts are wrong, like all those so-called classical music experts who tried to push atonality down our throats all last century. What gets listened to contains harmony and rhythm.

  7. February 22nd, 2010 at 6:48 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    When we studied atonality in Music Appreciation 102, the thought that occurred to me was that composers were running out of original ideas and were trying gimmicks to create new art forms. But, when it comes to music I am more of a fan of the romantics than modernists. I am not sure why.

    I understand about the appropriate usage of fifty-cent and dollar words, and how when the writer has misused them it is especially grating because it is pretentious. When they are used appropriately, they are beautiful additions to the story and make me smile when I read them. I love a good story that makes me forget that I am reading, as though the writer is beside me telling me a story. I often go twenty or thirty pages in a well-written book without even realizing that I am actively reading. It’s amazing when that happens and the ability to write like that is a gift, but a well-trained, disciplined and edited gift. And I think it comes from the closer connection that a writer has with the work. The actual writing instrument isn’t as important for the individual, and I think you write very well with the keyboard, ADM. I think it is the overall tenor of literature that has changed because of the change to mechanized writing tools.

    When we write with keyboards and computers we are taking advantage of great writing aids because we can get our works out to a larger number of people in a shorter amount of time, but now we are more used to shorter deadlines and have adapted stylistically to journalistic writing. It’s important in its place, but I don’t like the trend towards simplification in all forms of writing.

  8. February 22nd, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I’m with ADM on the pain of holding a pen. In my case, it’s because I smashed my finger ages ago and have a bone spur exactly where a pen rests. No fun.

    However, the enhanced speed of typing is very important to me when I’m writing fiction. I tend to write in my head, then type. That means I can only work in small chunks of text if can’t get my decisions down at speed. Admittedly, I don’t really work in complicated linguistic structures, but it’s still important to me to get the text right. It’s much easier for me to do that with a keyboard.

    And then there’s editing….

  9. February 22nd, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    Yep, the editing is why I don’t use a typewriter. I’m terrible!

  10. February 23rd, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Ray Ingles says:

    I don’t think Shakespeare would have been a better writer if he’d had a word processor available. On the other hand, a whole lot of people have written better works – or just written at all – because writing is easier now.

    On yet another hand, limitations are – to an artist – an invitation to work around or transcend them. One of the reasons poetry works is that, by forcing meter and rhyme, it forces the writer to avoid habitual phrases, compels the writer to find associations and links they might not otherwise see. When you have to invest more in writing, you tend to put more thought into what you put down on paper.

    I’d say that the modern ease of writing has its advantages for some styles of writing, and disadvantages for others. For example, in my experience it helps to have something written in front of me; after that, I can rework and improve it. For people like me who write in multiple drafts, a word processor is a miracle. But for people who brood and meditate and go through few drafts, a text editor is no help or even a menace.

  11. March 4th, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Cuttlefish says:

    I have, on occasion, composed the first drafts of my blogposts with a quill pen. (I should have thought to use writing tablets, though, as sepia ink turns out to be an inefficient way of inputting text to a laptop screen, and it is a bear to clean up.) I rarely manage to make many changes in second drafts, and almost never beyond that. I think perhaps using the quill (and thinking in meter and verse) has shaped my vocabulary to the extent that I have a small box full of 67 cent words, envelopes of $1.35 words, and the occasional $5 word bought in an alleyway from an underemployed lexicographer.

    My advice–if you do get a quill pen, keep it away from cats.

  12. March 6th, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Mike Haubrich, FCD says:

    I would be careful of the $5.00 words bought in an alleyway. Sometimes they are cut with words from foreign languages.

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