Good prose, ideally, should be musical. It ought to sound something like poetry.
I go around all day thinking up sentences and paragraphs in my head, and I am looking for some kind of music, a rhythm.
I also “think in pictures” or “think in movies” when I write. A lot of times I get stuck, and I try to think of a picture or a movie that represents allegorically what I am trying to say. Then when I get the pictures or movies, I try to find words to describe them. Some people call that “painting with words,” and it’s similar to what James Joyce did.
Really, all of the arts come together, and good prose should be musical (music, the aural arts), artistic (live movies or art, the visual arts), and poetic. I am not sure about sculpture and architecture, that is going to be harder to work into words.
One thing you notice about a lot of artists is that they did not limit themselves. Great artists often wrote poetry too. Poets wrote novels and short stories and vice versa. Poets and novelists wrote plays and even operas. It’s not so common to find writers who also write music, but Ezra Pound did, and there are also artists who do music. The Talking Heads came out of art school.
It’s hard to explain, but on some level all of the arts are doing the same thing with different instruments and sensory organs, but it all comes together in the end. I think that all of the academic disciplines are doing the same thing as each other too, and maybe the same thing as the arts. I call this, “The search for the perfect relationship,” but you might have your own phrase for what is going on.
Surely, when we saw cave paintings written on the walls in France 40,000 years ago, I can assure you that those folks had language. Why? Because art and language are intimately tied. How? They are both what I call, “the external representation of reality,” but you may have your own phrase.
Another thing you notice about most academic disciplines is that as you go higher and higher in the discipline, it all starts going mathematical. This is true in almost every field. So at the pinnacle of every discipline it all starts coming together as math. We could say that mathematics is “the ultimate language,” and I would not be the first person to say that.
Another thing that I do is I am constantly being influenced by everyone I read, all the good writers I read. That includes my own commenters, bloggers, magazines, novels, books, etc. You realize after a while that there are good and even great writers everywhere, even commenting on blogs. It’s very humbling. So all of these influences are constantly going up into my head and influencing my style, because my style is always open to new influences since I leave it open all the time.
For a while there I was reading a lot of New Yorker magazines. One thing you see if you read a lot of magazines is that many magazines have a “style” about them. There is a New Yorker style and a Rolling Stone style. Most New Yorker pieces have this “New Yorker style” about them. I don’t know how it works that way, but it seems to.
Anyway, after a while, I noticed that my style was starting to sound sort of New Yorkerish. I just let that New Yorker style go into my head and influence my writing. I did not stop and analyze it or worry that I was being inauthentic, because I’m not sure a writer can be inauthentic.
Sometimes I will be reading a lot of a certain blogger and I notice that their style starts going into my head. I just let that happen and allow myself to be ok with that.
So, it feels like my style is constantly changing and being influenced by whoever I’m reading at the time. All the influences are up in my head swirling around, mixing, mingling, taking each other out, etc. Some new ones are going in and some old ones are heading out. I don’t analyze the process or try to stop it, I just let it happen.
I am insecure, see? I don’t like other writers all that much, and I am very jealous of them. No matter who it is, I am trying to beat them. I am always trying to be the best, the greatest, or if that’s not possible (It’s not) at least to be a great writer, a very good writer, etc. My view of myself is always that I sort of suck, so I’m always anxious and trying to be better.
You might argue that this is a lousy way to be, but a lot of people – artists, musicians, sports stars, writers, filmmakers, architects, sculptors, or really anyone who wants to excel in any field – are trying to be the best, beat everyone else, and are pretty hard on themselves.
This vicious competition of the mind does seem to drive a lot of great work. If everyone was totally humble and didn’t try to beat everyone else, I think there might be less superior achievement in the world.
5 thoughts on “On Writing”
This is the “learning by osmosis” theory.
Exactly, something like that.
P. J. O’Rourke
A phenomenal writer, whether you agreed with him or not.
Yes he was very, very good.