Where’s the bloody horse?
I hardly know how to begin this. A few months ago I completed a free online university course that promised to make me a better writer in eight weeks. It began promisingly. I learned about character creating and plot development, about building tension and suspense and about ‘crafting a resolution’ (getting to the end). At the half way stage, however, it was clear, because the point had been emphasized so often, that the true writer’s art rested not in his flowing prose but in his commitment to edit ruthlessly whatever had flowed from his brain onto the paper when he had been, as they say, ‘in a flow’. Although the word ‘edit’ was used constantly what was really meant was ‘cut’. Mere change would not suffice, neither would just one review. Two or even three re-readings would be required to be satisfied that every superfluous word, sentence, paragraph or punctuation mark had been justly put to death. As a result of this, by the end of the course I felt I knew so much about how not to write that I completely lost the motivation to make a start.
This would not have mattered in the least had I not, six months before, started on the first novel of my life and proudly steered it through a stormy ocean of prose to a point where the last word was fifty thousand words away from the first. Where it remains. Instead of all that editing in prospect I took solace in reading titles that caught my attention on the bookshelves of Amazon UK and Kindle. The latest of these is Washington Irving’s ‘Knickerbocker’s History of New York’, a two hundred year old classic, completely original in its day, still alive and kicking, and a powerful influence on many American authors who came after. It’s wordy, it meanders, it uses words only Washington Irving knew the meaning of, it’s satire (hilarious of course) and I suspect that for many millenials it would be incomprehensible from the first page, which is a pity because it is also totally relevant to our own times. I dread to think what a kaleidoscope of colours the narrative would display if subjected to the app ‘Hemingway’, the modern would-be writer’s helpmate.
Then, quite unexpectedly, this ascerbic little jingle rang bells in my mind:
‘You praise the firm restraint with which they write
I’m with you there of course
They use the snaffle and the curb alright
But where’s the bloody horse?
It was the poet Roy Campbell’s response to an article in praise of certain 20thC American poets.
Next week I will start on the next fifty thousand words of my first, and last, novel.