Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Notes on Notes on Writing on Writing, and "Style"

"For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication." - Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

I'm too lazy to look it up, but it's pretty close to this, from the 18th century lexicographer and all-around character Samuel Johnson: "Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Or something very close to that. And how many of us write, for zero to almost no money to very little dough, to mere pittances, to "slave wages," to...O! The ignominy! Fools and blockheads: there are many of us, apparently.

Sticking with Dr. Johnson: even therapeutic writing would land you in Blockheadville. Is that legitimate? Did Johnson really mean it? And if so, who gives an effing eff?

Whatever. I can't help but write, money or no. I'm guessing only the halfway decent writers (on up to "good" ones) pretty much constantly worry about whether that last thing was up to par. Worries about punctuation and editing. Worries about what they left out, and what maybe shouldn't have been included. Were there any "howlers"? Will they actually come through and pay what they said they would? There seem no end of worries. And that's why a lot of them drink? "Some men are like musical glasses - to produce their finest tones you must keep them wet." - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

If you want some staggering data on alcohol and writers, see Donald W. Goodwin, Alcohol and the Writer. "Six Americans had won the Nobel Prize in literature and four were alcoholic. (A fifth drank heavily and the sixth was Pearl Buck, who probably didn't deserve the prize.)" The very long list of chronically sozzled writers in Goodwin is sobering. (Not really?)
I've been thinking a lot about Nietzsche's assertion that to improve one's mind you must improve your style. But "style" is tricky enough. For one, it seems like fingerprints to me, although, in my more rational moments I know I write in certain styles in certain domains, and I probably subconsciously picked up my themes, rhythms, word choice, forms, tones...from a huge variety of writers I both admired and - horrifyingly enough - did NOT admire. Why is that?

Okay, so I write in this blog with a certain voice. The form is pretty constrained. I'm not doing experimental writing here, that's fer damned sure. And when I've written in other places - and you know this well, why am I telling you? - we somehow get some sort of idea of who our "audience" is, and do a bit of code switching, and out pops some writing that's yet another aspect of our "style." Maybe it's your academic mode. Maybe it's your epistolary mode. (Or mine.) All kinds of modes. But still, it's you. It's me. And sometimes, this style thing seems un poco oppressive...

So how to get away from your own fingerprints? I don't know, but I have a hunch it has to do with lots of reading in different areas, maybe new areas for you (me.). It has to do with increasing recognition of one's (my own) writing habits and tics, and indexing them, if only mentally. Then: le resistance!

Yep: so my rambling mish-mash, too-long sentences (often including parentheticals) that meander and probably annoy and lose the reader as I may have lost you now, here, in this sentence? I make a concerted effort to not do that. I (You?) say, "Write simple, declarative sentences. Use one form of punctuation per sentence, aside from the period. Limit yourself to one or two clauses; three if you are in some heightened state." And I do that. (Yea, right...)

There's a long history of writers imposing constraints on their writing in order to produce more interesting texts. See, for example, the OULIPO. My problem seems to reside far apart from those Wonderful Weirdos.

Then, when I blink, I notice I've gone back to writing in that same old way I have for years. Fingerprints! But they're not fingerprints; to use the fingerprint metaphor seems to absolve me of any aspect of my writing I don't like, because after all, we're born with our fingerprints. We can't help having those fingerprints. But can we "help" how we ended up writing, with something I hesitate to call a "style"? (In my case at least?)

Read interviews with writers and they'll say, "My style came from..." and then they name writers. But does it really work that way? Maybe it does and I've just been too hypnotized by those writers I both admired and disliked and many in-betweeners, and let my guard down and allowed them to worm their way into my writing DNA, much like mitochondria did in humans, very very early in our development as mammals. Mitochondria - by which we can trace our mother's ancestry in us - seems to have been a parasite that got into our cells. Except it wasn't a parasite at all, really: it found a convivial environment in our cells. Mitochondria became symbiotic. Maybe it was symbiotic from the get-go, I'm not sure. What am I an Evolutionary Molecular Cytologist? No, I'm a Generalist. An overweening one, at that...

Anyway: in what ways - if any - is mitochondria like our style? Does it work as an analogy? Probably Burroughs's language as "virus" metaphor-complex works better...

I guess all some of us can hope for is to communicate something of interest, to someone. And how do you really know your audience in a place like a blog? I suspect if I were an expert in automobile insurance I'd have a much better idea of who was reading me, what they were looking for, and why. And I'd be making much more money as a writer, according to some Google statistics I read recently.

Anyway, the metaphor stuff seems one way to really hijack a reader's imagination and/or nervous system. It almost seems too powerful. There is a school of cognitive science that argues very cogently and persuasively that metaphors are not literary devices, as so many of us were taught in school; they are primary objects of all thought on the level of what we call "thinking." You can't help but speak in metaphors. The metaphors reside in clusters of neural circuits, built up over a lifetime of exposure to them. They are imbibed and exchanged unconsciously! See, for example, Metaphors We Live By, Johnson and Lakoff. Or better yet: From Molecule To Metaphor, by Feldman. 

So, if you didn't know anything about cell biology and you read my bit about mitochondria above, you didn't have the circuitry (in a strong sense) that I was playing on. But you may have gotten the gist. Metaphors can enchant, provide information, and even lie to you in a very subtle way. (Notice I'm making the metaphor into a Conjurer/Magician right now: are they "really" that?) Aye, I just pulled a collection of biology articles from Scientific American off my shelf, and found this sentence, "Although the associations that form the symbiotic corporations we know as eukaryotes are now obligate - that is, mitochondria and chloroplasts cannot survive on their own since too many of their genes have been transferred to the cell nucleus - there are still many examples of intermediate stages of cooperation." - p.6, Life at the Edge, edited by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould.

How well does my mitochondria metaphor for writing style work now?
Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite writers (and one hell of an alcoholic, by the way), said that style was "the most durable thing." Which seems a wretched thing to me, considering my quandary. He also said style was a "projection of personality," which seems fair, if unpleasant. I would have preferred a lot more of whatever David Foster Wallace had in the way of style. Or Tom Robbins. Or William Gibson or Robert Anton Wilson. Or Aldous Huxley (see other blogpost today). 

I sat down to write about something having to do with experimental writing and I ended up blathering on and on and on about...whatever it was you (presumably) just read. And yes, I just let the Nietzsche quote hang there. Turns out it had nothing to do with the rest of the article, eh? 

Or: did it?

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