He has that careful way of walking which old men — but seldom old women — sometimes develop. As if they are carrying a full basin of water they don’t want to spill over. Come to think of it, it may be connected with prostate troubles.
– John Berger, FROM A TO X
So I’m compounding Emily’s and my general delinquence of late when it comes to Wednesday Words by the fact that today’s comes from a book that in no way is intended for kids. But maybe I’ll compensate for it by saying something about the words.
‘Cause I’m still a little mystified by this book (which, no, I haven’t finished, and I’ll thank you to keep those kinds of questions to yourself), but one of the things I love about it is Berger (an art critic)’s little observations like that. Or this one:
Friends made in prison are different from others, aren’t they? They joke more. They bring an old joke out of their pocket, they take a bite and then they offer it around.
It’s the same reason I keep reading John Green even though at this point, the story lines about nerdy, awkward boys obsessed with mysterious girls who are primarily a vehicle for the boy’s discoveries about the world are getting a bit old. I keep reading Green because, despite myself (and to my continual surprise), I love the metaphors that seem like they spontaneously arise from the characters (but you know Green must have spent weeks creating). Because he’s a good writer.
This sociology professor I don’t know personally, but have long read the blog of, last year wrote an interactive fiction game that won a contest. In a post about it that I can’t find, I remember him saying that he couldn’t write a novel because, although he could write great scenes with snappy dialogue, he could never transition between them coherently, which he thought was what separated out real fiction writers. (Since I can’t find it, I hope I’m not butchering the point too badly.)
I think what separates me from fiction writers is a bit different. I’m pretty sure I could grow to be good at plotting, for example, because I think you can make it a largely intellectual exercise; I could learn to understand story structures deeply enough, I’m betting, that I could produce what seemed like emergent elements in them. (Which is what I think makes a good plot: when you’re startled by what happens but can immediately see how inevitable it was.) (Buffy Season Two, I am once again looking to you as the epitome of what a plot should be. Thank you for being a part of my life.)
But I don’t think I could learn to write like Berger, or Green. Part of it, I’m sure, isn’t about writing per se, as much as that I just don’t notice enough. Which maybe I could learn. But I feel that there’s also an irreducible creativity in creating these startling comparisons, which I simply lack.
It’s possible that I only think I couldn’t learn this because I’ve never seen it well articulated enough. I’ve read a fair number of books on writing, but they’re rarely on writing at the line level, maybe because it’s hard to explain the principles of good writing on that level besides, you know, good grammar. I did once have an extended argument with a therapist about whether I could learn to be funny. I’m not quite sure why I feel convinced that I could learn to tell a great joke, but not to describe one like Berger does.
* And speaking of good writing, how much do I love the second-to-last paragraph of that link? Much.