Tuesday 20 February 2018

Writing for Pleasure 1

We often talk about reading for pleasure - good thing too - but in a way writing for pleasure is harder, and, I think, happens less often. 

Why would that be?

Most of us learn to talk without anyone teaching us. It happens because we are around other people talking and if it was hard or odd or confusing, we can't remember it being like that, because we learnt how to do most of it in a time we can't recall. Writing, on the other hand, is something that we are taught and most of us can remember a few things about times when we were being taught.

I can remember most of my teachers telling me that I had terrible handwriting, other teachers telling me that I was 'good at writing even though my handwriting was terrible'. I can also remember my dad giving me advice on how to write - he was a secondary school teacher and the advice he gave me was: write about what you know and don't try to write about what you don't know. (I think he was talking about writing non-fiction essays and realistic stories, not fantasy!) 

One reason - I think it's the main one - that writing is hard is because there are various things about it that are very different from the way we speak to each other. 

When we speak to each other we do many of the following things that we tend not to do when we write:

make gestures, such as pointing to people and things
interrupt ourselves and other people
not finish what we seemed to be going to say
letting other people finish what we were going to say
speeding up and slowing down
being more or less musical in the way we string words together
stressing parts of words, whole words and phrases (though we can do this a bit in writing by using italics and capital letters)
repeating words, phrases and sentences
using a lot of phrases like 'you know' or 'like' 
doing a lot of 'umming and erring'
use a lot of 'pronouns' without saying who the 'he', 'she', 'it', 'we' or 'they' actually are because we are assuming that other people listening know who we're talking about,
saying things in a way that is 'compressed' or 'contracted' like 'I'd've' (though some of these we can write down, just as I've written 'I'd've'!) 
using regional, local and non-standard words and phrases,
and - not talking in the long, sentences that we use when we write!

When we write, a lot - but by no means all - of the writing we do is not organised in the way we organise language in speech.
In continous prose (the kind of writing I'm doing now), we mostly organise things into sentences, and if it's standard English, this means that most of the sentences have a full verb in the middle of it, which has a 'subject'. This is the main 'axis' or 'elbow' of a sentence. (The last sentence you've just read, that axis was 'This is...' 'This' is the 'subject' and 'is' (in this case) was the full verb or 'finite verb' as some people call it. 

When we speak, we quite often don't organise our speech into 'subject verb' sentences.  

When we write, we have to explain every pronoun, or people won't know who or what we are talking about.

When we write we can make sentences grow, particularly if we revise what we write. We can add extra phrases that begin with words like 'in', 'on', 'by', 'with'. We can add extra clauses that begin with words like 'although', 'because', 'if', 'as soon as', 'when', 'where', 'who', 'that'. We can link one idea to another using 'and',or 'but'. We can of course use all these words, phrases and clauses when we speak. What I'm saying here is that when we write, we can lever in more of them, making what we mean more complicated. 

Another thing we can do is what the linguist David Crystal calls, 'front-loading' a sentence.When we speak, we tend to dive straight into that 'subject-verb' thing, or even straight into the verb. 

'What you doing?'
'Going out.'

If I was reporting that I would write, 'She asked me what I was doing, and I said that I was going out.'

That's a very different 'construction' of language. I can also, add in things at the front about when and where I was when 'she' asked me what I was doing. I can also  say some things about 'she'. I can, if I choose,put some of these up front, in a way that I might find difficult when speaking. 

'In a room that was neither a pub or a shop but had the air of being a bit of both, she asked me what I was doing...' 

Some people can speak like that - especially stand-up comedians, politicians, and in the kind of rehearsed, written speech that you get in plays and films or people like me reading off scripts on the radio. 

Most of the time, we don't talk like that. 

Both talking and writing take place over longer stretches of time than a single sentence or just a few sentences. We might chat for hours. We can write things that take hours or even days to read. How these two ways of using language are organised are very different too. When you look at transcripts of people talking for a time, there is often a 'circularity'. People give each other accounts of things, and often come back to them, sometimes again and again.  They also signal to each other that in many different ways things that indicate they are listening to each other ('Mm', 'Go on', 'Really?'), the indicate when they are bored, when they haven't followed what the other persons is saying, and various kinds of comments about whether the conversation should go on, wind up soon, or wind up now!

In writing, we hardly use any of these. In fact, part of the oddness of writing is that we do it without anyone saying, 'Mm' or 'Go on,' or 'Right...OK then...' We do it to and for a silent audience. This simple fact is one of the main reasons why writing is difficult. We have to imagine our audience, we have to 'internalise' an audience (that is write for that audience without saying we are), and every word and phrase and sentence we use, does in fact 'imply' an audience. This is because in a way, everything we say and write comes from stores of language (words, phrases, sentences, etc) which are a bit like shelves in libraries: stores of language for particular reasons and purposes, waiting for us to use, adapt and re-use. When we speak or write about, say, the kind of car we want to get, we go  to the car shelf and start talking in a kind of car dialect. This is much easier when we speak because the person we're speaking to might well help us.When we write, we have to do it with no help. So, when we're writing about, say, 'The Tudors', we have to go to the history shelf and pull down the 'history way of writing' and there isn't anyone to prompt us with words and phrases that historians use, like 'on the other hand...' or 'another problem that Elizabeth faced...' We have to learn these in order to be the kind of person who can write like that. Again,it's not easy!

In writing, we can 'develop an argument' or 'structure a plot' or organise a poem according to a fixed form like a sonnet or a ballad, There are then 'strings' that run through pieces of writing that are, say,  the way we organise a series of 'points' in an argument, discussion or 'exploration of a theme'. There might be 'strings' which guide us  in shaping a whole song or poem, and there might be rhythms to the length of scene or the kinds of dialogue that we put in a play which again are a bit like invisible strings holding and shaping the whole piece of writing. Incredibly rare and clever people can do some or even most of this when they talk. In fact, it's easier for most of us to do this when we have time to think and 'draft' and 'redraft' our writing! 

We might say, then, that the kinds of writing I'm talking about here (continuous prose, poems and other forms of literature)  are a bit like a dialect that is different from the one that we speak with. It's not a perfect analogy, but if I stick with it for a moment: consider trying to speak with the dialect you don't speak with. In my case that would be, say, Glaswegian. Immediately I'm thinking of things like 'canna' and 'dinna', the Glaswegian way of saying the kind of things that I say as 'can't' and 'don't'. I have to learn those words in order to say them. That's a bit (not totally) like the process by which we learn to write in standard English continuous prose. And it's not easy, particularly when we're very young, and particularly when we're both learning how to physically form words with our pencils and pens at the same time as learning this new way of using English. 

The question, then, is how do we make all this pleasurable? 

However, before getting into this, I'll need to explore the question of different kinds of writing. One of the ways in which we 'mystify' writing is to tell children and adults that really there is only one way to write - standard English,continuous prose. 

In fact, there are many, many different ways of writing and even within some forms of standard English continuous prose - like, say, in  novels, or newspapers, where there are loads of times when it's not very standard, and not very 'continuous'. Here are some types of writing that are like this:

TV and film scripts, plays, poems, songs, TV ads, posters, newspaper headlines, slogans, dialogue in novels, the words in a  children's picture book, emails, texts, comments in social media, shopping lists, labels, some instructions.

Let's never forget that all this writing is important, a lot of it is a crucial part of how we enjoy ourselves, get things done, and in some cases make money! 

This is why that anyone teaching writing knows that one way to make writing pleasurable is to do some of it in these ways, even if it's only in a kind of mock way  - 'let's make up a mock ad for toenails'. This is then a kind of 'bridging' place to get writing going, which is neither speech, nor standard English continuous prose. 

It's 'something else' and, as it happens, it's a territory I've been exploring for about the last 50 years or more: writing in ways that make the writing 'easy to say out loud' and I do this in most of my poetry, in my radio scripts and in a good deal of my stories and some of my blogs - even this one that you've just read.