Thursday, November 05, 2009

Writing

It was George MacRae who instructed us in graduate school to write every day. It's good advice that today's emails and postings could represent. But he meant academic writing--the kind of writing that works for publication. I've not been good at doing this every day but I am resolved to be more intentional about it.

One thing that helps me immensely is reading good writing. Last week I almost finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (before I left it for my father) and found it lively and engaging. Focused on Cromwell, Mantel doesn't tell us about him, she shows us his life and his skills. "He was a blacksmith's son who ended up Earl of Essex," Mantel told the BBC before winning the prize. "So how did he do it? That's the question driving the book." In fact, Cromwell is a man for our times: self-made polyglot and wheeler-dealer who succeeds in a world that fawns upon noble families surrounding the King. Sir Thomas More, on the other hand, is a peevish, vindictive bully.

The Times of London called Wolf Hall a "wonderful and intelligently imagined retelling of a familiar tale from an unfamiliar angle – one that makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago look new again, and shocking again, too."

I've not read Diana Athill but she sounds wonderful. Here's an excerpt from her most recent book, a memoir called Somewhere Towards the End given in the New York Times in January of this year. It seems to be a vivid account of growing old and coming to terms with death.

It is so obvious that life works in terms of species rather than of individuals. The individual just has to be born, to develop to the point at which it can procreate, and then to fall away into death to make way for its successors, and humans are no exception whatever they may fancy. We have, however, contrived to extend our falling away so much that it is often longer than our development, so what goes on in it and how to manage it is worth considering. Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster round procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away. Being well advanced in that process, and just having had my nose rubbed in it by pugs and tree ferns, I say to myself, 'Why not have a go at it?' So I shall.

Ian Jack in this week's Guardian calls her sentences "lucid and direct" and the result of a triumphant struggle to "get it right." There's a humility to her effort that he conveys in a conversation they had:

"I've never actually planned a book," she said. "I've never thought of readers." In the 47 years since, only six books have followed, which brings her total to eight. She said: "I've never written anything unless I've wanted to. I really am an amateur."

How different this is from the self-indulgent prose of Julian Barnes in his memoir on the same topic of coming to terms with death, Nothing to be Frightened Of. A friend lent it to me this past summer and I couldn't finish it. Time to visit the local library and see what the holdings for Diana Athill are.

1 comment:

Rev Dr Mom said...

In some ways, I miss academic writing. But I don't miss the pressure! And I do get to write a sermon every week, although it's a different kind of writing. But I think the advice to write every day is good--although I've never been that disciplined!

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