Monday, April 25, 2011

On Writing


Since I first read it, my favorite work in all literature has always been "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", by T. S. Eliot. As you know, its a rather long poem, filled with striking images and unforced rhythmic cadences and rhymes. I've always felt the last three of its 131 total lines to be a compact summary of all the 128 lines lines which came before them - as if Mr. Eliot had thought, "Dash it, if you don't understand by now what I've struggled mightily to tell you, well then here, here is what I mean, blockhead!"

This thought occurred to me while reading through "Freedom Versus Organization" by Bertrand Russell (Sadly, you can't download this book for free, but much of his work is available at Gutenberg.) Mr. Russell was a terrifyingly intelligent man, but for me at least, prone to vast spells of really boring pedantry. Which I'm quite sure is an observation I make sheerly because I lack the intellectual stones to instinctively appreciate what he says on my first read, and the patience to go back over it and give it the attention it deserves.

Occasionally though, a compact, thought provoking nugget emerges. Like this:

"...if Henry VIII had not fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, the United States would not now exist."

It is as if Mr. Russell had noticed I wasn't paying attention and so reached out and slapped me... "Here! This is a potential consequence - so pay attention, dummy!"

It seems to me now that nearly all great literature depends as much on the imagination of the reader as it does on that of the writer. Average writers believe themselves possessed by above average vision, and don't care how many words it takes to describe their visions to poor slobs like us. After all, they're allowing us the privilege of seeing something which we ourselves cannot, aren't they?

Well actually no, no they're not. All of us I think, from the meanest digger of ditches to the climbers of the highest mountains, experience the same painfully beautiful visions. Its all in how we express those images to others - and the really great writers know how to reach out, grab us by the lapels and demand our attention.

My copy of "Freedom Versus Organization" is 471 pages long. It is among the best and most illuminating history books ever written. But what makes it a great book for me is the page or two of phrases which reach out and engage my imagination.

In another sense, maybe what the great writers are telling us is, "Look man, I can't do this by myself. I need your help." And it is that respect for the reader which draws us in, fleshes out and breaths life into their visions. So, maybe, before you put pen to paper, your first thoughts should not be of how you will say it, but how and by whom it will be read...


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