Thinking About Writing

I was browsing a few blogs and came across some comments.  One man postulated that we needed a new category of writing style called the fast river.  Like many who have taken courses work on writing in the last twenty to forty years he shares a common experience.  I have seen so many well meaning professors and teachers and professional writers emphasize that good writing means showing and not telling.  I would blame this infatuation of all action and no detail on the advent of television and later on the internet.  Yes, and it is even a Western Civilization idea come to fruition, if you like.  But is it really the sign of a good writer?  What if we rewrote Hamlet so that instead of the actor reciting the various soliloquies he acted them out.  One no longer asks the question of whether to be or not to be but rushes about the stage showing how more noble it may be to suffer the slings and arrows….well, we all know what happens to that prescription.  The play loses meaning, all thoughts are no longer thoughts but frantic actions.  I fear that the problems is more one of misunderstanding and ignorance than sheer stupidity.

Writers, exposition is the means by which we explain actions, mental states, and other needs of the reader.  Notice that exposition is not mere description.  The sun was raised steeply into the sky by its orange vapors and carried across the horizon by emblazoned zephyrs of desert winds blowing like dragons on a cup of hot orange pekoe tea while our souls sat in the sands of this blast furnace called diablo irony mucho grande.  Well, yes, that does describe a hot dessert day, if a bit too descriptive.  And to continue with the parched throats the rives and gushing fountains of sweat might be a bit overwhelming.  One of William Faulkner’s faults was not only his tendency to create one sentence paragraphs of excessive length but to string four or five or even six together as if pages were necessary luxury that everyone who read him was ready to indulge.  Hence not many of our young readers and writers bother with Faulkner.  They haven’t the stamina for such an exercise of the intelligent brain.  But who reads Ford Maddox Ford these days?  His Parades End is enough to drive the average reader into paroxysms of mental anguish and pain.  It takes sticking power, discipline to read this literature.

True enough, some authors are better at the expositions, the descriptions, the way in which we tell the world what is going on.  You know, in science not all ideas are reduced to actions.  How can any action explain the totality of Einsteins General theory of relativity?  What slight of hand trick would you use assuming you could use one?  How do I love thee, let me count the ways by a bunch of actions?  I’ll get a tape measure so I can show you the depth and breath of my soul.  Any fool can follow a script, a formula, a recipe for writing a novel.  Every Hardy Boys novel I ever read as a child, and that was only a dozen out of close to one hundred that were written (most were ghost written according the a specified formula, by the way) all had the same exact plot.  Only the bad guys varied from book to book.  And it all about action.  Okay, so we have from time to time a paragraph about how one of the boys was trying to figure out the plot.  But if you really wanted to know what happened and how it all came out, just read the last ten pages and all will be explained.  Try reading James Hilton, either Lost Horizon or Random Harvest and see what I mean about the value of exposition.  There are thousands of really great books that were written long before all this nonsense about always show and not tell.  Now I will grant you that some authors did over do the telling a tad.  But to read Victor Hugo and not pay attention ot his descriptions and his expositions is to lose all understanding of what he was trying to say to us.

You see, a good author is not just telling us a story, he wants to give us more than just a few hours of idle enjoyment.  He wants us to think, to see his point to life.  One of the problems I have with Hemingway is that he was too shallow of a writer.  He wanted to give us more bang for the buck but always came up short in his novels.  What was The Old Man And The Sea about?  You can kick that one around in so many ways with so many metaphors and still not come up with what the author himself thought he was saying.  Frankly, I don’t think he knew what the point of his story was.  Was it about getting old, fishing as a way of life, the metaphor of the life and death struggle with the fish being one’s life and the sharks as death eating us alive?  Perhaps it is that the old man will not let go of life just yet no matter how much he has lost of it.  Go ahead, take a stab at finding meaning.  But forget about knowing what Hemingway had in mind.  And for so little action the man who had abhorred exposition gave us so much of it in the very short book.  Personally, I think Hemingway was struggling with his own meaning of life.  He was close to the end, in his sixties, and perhaps a bit tired of chasing meaning.  He blew his brains out not too long after writing that book, if memory serves.

Do you start to understand something about this thing we call the novel?  Can you see that it is through a story that has a point, a moral, an underlying cause, a reason for existence, that we begin to see the world through the author’s eyes?  How will you explain the world to your children at the various ages in their lives?  When I was in the service I remember the veterans telling me not to go down town looking for action,  “You see”, they said, “you, are the action.”  Your writing is the action.  And either you are rich in meaning or just another worthless target to shoot at.  In so many ways you are living your book, it is a part of you.  You can’t divorce it from your being.  It is a living thing, treat it with respect, treat it as if it has great meaning.  That is what description and exposition give your book.  Take a stand, have a point of view, tell us something of what you think your philosophy happens to be or you understand it.  Make us want to know more about you.

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