Letters to my protege: seminal thoughts on the art of writing (5)

Dear Babatunde,

I needed to tell you as I delve into the fundamentals of style that if you’re reading to write, you can’t afford to read just for the pleasure of reading even though that isn’t bad in itself. Your affair with books and any good written work must transcend the platonic or the peripheral: yours unlike the regular reader’s must be an intimate involvement with the work.

I have discovered in the course of my own reading that every good book, article, story or commentary I engage be seen as a sea of bounteous treasures or a garden filled with a rich assortment of juicy fruits. I have found each one of those works to be an aggregation of several masterstrokes by the authors – each sentence and paragraph replete with ample doses of the creative juice that makes them sing. And so, by the very nature of my voracious literary appetite, it was always my profound pleasure and prerogative to pounce and pore patiently.

If you looked over my shoulder and found me reading a good piece, you would find me taking it slow – taking every bit of my time to glean the grapes of it. I would gingerly navigate each pathway in the work looking closely and deliberately and picking the treasures that litter its pathways. Apart from wanting to know the “what” of the work, I set out to know the “how” of the writer. Does he have a great message and does he possess a patently smooth and silky style that titillates my literary tastebuds? Then, I want to know how he managed it.

I don’t just want to read through in a hurry and drop the piece and say, “Oh, what an awesome one!” If that’s where my relationship with the work ends, then I would have succeeded rather remarkably at missing the target altogether. I could do that at the first encounter, skimming the workjust to get a grasp of its essence. My second encounter comes with purpose. Precisely, I want to study it. I get my pen and notepad and I’m taking notes of the words, expressions, contexts and observations that strike a note.

I want to identify the writer’s choice of words. Were they simple words or gobbledygook? How exactly did he string these words to describe different scenarios, situations and circumstances. If I can answer this successfully, when I am confronted with same situations, I can attempt to describe them in my uniquely creative way – the informed perspective picked from reading the masters serving as a potent guide. How exactly is he using various elements like idioms, proverbs, quotes, and to what effect. I want to know and understand.

Again, I want and need to know how he constructs and structures his sentences and to what effect? Were they short sentences that conferred instant clarity on each line of thought? Were they complex or compound sentences so masterfully ordered by the writer that the reader, even if he were the most asinine, could not lose his way. I want to know what part of the work was influenced by his personality, experiences, educational background and so forth. And so sometimes, I’m not just reading the work, I’m also reading the worker. I read interviews he granted about the work or comments he wrote on it. I reader what other writers are saying about the writer and his work. It is important.

If you’re reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations for example, you will have to pay extra attention as you parse the text to see what Dickens is doing with words, how he’s using them and placing them in different contexts to achieve varied desired effects. You want to look out for his unique deployment of language and various literary devices – how he orders and presents his thoughts and ideas and how he arrives at his pre-determined end. It may not even be an end he pre-determined because sometimes the work takes over and you find the story spiralling – twisting and turning into new worlds that you never imagined at the beginning.

It’s always a delightful experience when a story develops a mind of its own and divorces itself from your preconceived plot, straggling into whole new realms of conception. You suddenly begin to see the full-fledged power of your imagination in lavish display and understand why the human mind is such a phenomenal instrument. Don’t be afraid to traverse the nexus that will lead you to your desired haven.

Also, don’t be afraid to imitate the styles of those great writers you love. Learn from them. Steal from them. The other day, I was reading Benjamin Franklin’s personal account of his approach to reading and how he incorporated the lessons learnt in style to his writing. A prolific author himself, his words were:

“…I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen them. I bought it, read it OVER and OVER, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiment in EACH sentence, I laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that came to mind.

Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them…This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.”

In the first of his Letters to a Young Writer, Teju Cole advises, “…disciple yourself to great writers. Read Mann, Garcia Marquez, Coetzee, Joyce, and learn at their feet…Read slowly, like someone studying the network of tunnels underneath a bank vault in preparation for a heist. What can you steal from the techniques of the masters? Understand what Joyce is doing with language in Dubliners. Immerse yourself in the slow, taut arc of Mann’s Magic Mountain. And then (a little brashness helps) ask yourself: what can you do even better than them?”

Valuable lessons here. Think deeply on these things and act on them and whatever you do…make sure you…

Keep writing

Your fellow traveller

Bamidele Salako

(c) 2014

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