Vintage Advice For Rebellious Writers

The last few weeks have taken me away from my usual blogging, working, and life routine due to family commitments, but I’ve been doing some interesting reading which was a source of amusement during a pretty stressful spell. I find myself driven to sharing some quotes with you from two vintage sources in relation to advising fiction writers on style and craft. The opinions and instructions are so quirky, some of which directly echo thinking today and some which are at opposite extremes of what we writers are urged to follow for best practice. Certain points really stir up food for thought. And if nothing else, these ideas may well lighten the load we can often feel when carrying all those writers’ rules on our shoulders and just might free up some common sense, personal validation, and creative expression, as well as give us the courage to flout some of those writers’ rules from time to time.

I’m going to start with some extracts from a book entitled, How to Write, Think and Speak Correctly, edited by C.E.M Joad (1891-1953) and published by Odhams Press in  1939. This book has been sitting on one of my shelves for years, and is finally getting an airing.

On the art of the paragraph, Joad says:

‘A great deal of unnecessary nonsense is talked by grammarians about the paragraph. They have indeed, in my view, succeeded in exaggerating its importance to a point at which it ceases to be an aid to writing and becomes an impediment. The good literary artist will never be in any trouble about paragraphing his material.’

Joad goes on to use an analogy of the potter and his clay for the writer and his writing and advises the writer thus: ‘Do not be troubled by them (paragraphs). If you take your writing seriously, then not only the sentences but also the paragraphs will sort themselves out, and once you have acquired even a slight mastery of your art, you will be paragraphing as you punctuate, more by intuition than by rule.

 (In other words just do what comes naturally, and don’t sweat the paragraph!)

On creating characters and seeing through their eyes:

‘The novelist is, among other things, one who observes scenes clearly, and possesses a gift for seeing them through the eyes of other people – his characters.’

 ‘For our characters, we must rely upon our own experiences of human nature…character building requires first and foremost an insight into human nature. Every novelist, therefore, has first to become a psychologist in the widest sense of the word. He must possess an understanding of how different sorts of people react to different situations…If you wish to create characters, I can give you no other advice than to study human nature.’

 (Excellent! I think this is what writers do naturally, even in advance of ever deciding to become a writer. It’s great to see this aspect of being a writer stressed back in the day.)

‘You characters must reveal themselves as part of the plot. They must never be dropped into it as so many plums into a bowl of cream.’ Here he is pointing out that the characters must be woven into the story, not set up and introduced with all their mannerisms and personal history in a lengthy descriptive section that holds up the narrative. No plums dunked into the cream, thank you!

Now onto Lin Yutang once again, who I find has much to say on the subject of the art of writing in his book, The Importance of Living. In fact I found myself quite stunned by his advice from 1937 and I giggled at times, so I hope you enjoy it too.

Here is the man himself:

On the Art of Writing:

 ‘The art of writing is very much broader than the art of writing itself, or of the writing technique…it would be helpful to a beginner who aspires to be a writer first to dispel in him any over-concern with the technique of writing, and him to stop trifling with such superficial matters and get down to the depths of his soul. When the foundation is properly laid and a genuine literary personality is cultivated, style follows as a natural consequence and the little points of technique will take care of themselves.’

(Well, that’s good to know!)

On Technique and Personality:

‘There is no such thing as the technique of  writing. All good Chinese writers who to my mind are worth anything have repudiated it. The technique of writing is to literature as dogmas are to the church – the occupation with trivial things by trivial minds.’ Lin claims rather that it is the personality of the author or actor of drama which is the foundation of all successes in art and literature, that it is the ruling factor far above that of creative technique.

On Style and Thought:

 ‘Writing is good or bad, depending on its charm and flavour, or lack of them. For this charm there can be no rules. Charm rises from one’s writing as smoke rises from a pipe-bowl, or a cloud rises from a hill-top, not knowing whither it is going. The best style is that of ‘sailing clouds and flowing water’.’

‘Style is a compound of language, thought, and personality. A man’s character is partly born, and so is his style. The other part is just contamination.’

 (For contamination, I can read this as emulating or copying another writer’s style or trying to write in a style for dramatic effect or address certain themes, but which don’t come naturally to the writer. So have the courage to be yourself in your writing.)

 On Readers Reactions to a Writer’s Work:

 Some authors provoke their readers constantly and pleasantly like a beggar’s coat full of fleas. An itch is a great thing.

 (I take this to mean the reader’s curiosity and imagination being stimulated by an author’s work and moved to read on for the ideas that may be being brought into awareness or provoked in the reader’s mind by the author. And I think many writers aim to do exactly this.)

‘There is a period of gestation of ideas before writing, like the period of gestation of an embryo in its mother’s womb before birth. When one’s favourite author has kindled the spark in one’s soul, and set up a current of live ideas in him, that is the ‘impregnation’. When a man rushes into print before his ideas go through this period of gestation, that is diarrhoea, mistaken for birth pains. When a writer sells his conscience and goes against his convictions, that is artificial abortion, and the embryo is always stillborn. When a writer feels violent convulsions like an electric storm in his head, and he doesn’t feel happy until he gets the ideas out of his system and puts them down on paper and feels an immense relief, that is literary birth. And I think we can all relate to this: Hence a writer always feels a maternal affection towards his literary product as a mother feels toward her baby’.

 (This is a birthing metaphor commonly used today for the nurturing and effort required in writing and publishing a book. But it is interestingly extended here to look at what can go wrong with the process.)

 The School of Self Expression:

‘Writing is but an expression of one’s own nature or character and the play of his vital spirit. The school of self expression demands that we express in writing only our thoughts and feelings, our genuine loves, genuine hatreds, genuine fears and genuine hobbies. These will be expressed without any attempt to hide the bad from the good, without fear of being ridiculed by the world, and without fear of contradicting the ancient sages or contemporary authorities.’

(This very much mirrors today’s advocating of free speech, writing what you know and what you are passionate about, and being true to yourself in your writing. Sounds good to me!)

And finally, I love this:

‘When a poet has a good line, never mind whether the musical tones of the words fall in with the established pattern or not.’

which can be taken in a broader sense to do your own thing and flout the writers’ rules if you and the spirit of your writing deem it necessary.

Cheers for now :>)

(top pic by Lynne, Lin Yutang portrait from Wikimedia Commons)







About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: Art: Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook Artists page Facebook
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12 Responses to Vintage Advice For Rebellious Writers

  1. I especially liked Yutang’s advice. He is witty! But what resonated most is his suggestion that writing style is to be like sailing clouds and flowing water. Yes, I certainly aspire to that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful! So many thoughts which match my own. Since “an itch is a great thing”, I need to get back to provoking my readers!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rick Ellrod says:

    “trying to write in a style for dramatic effect or address certain themes, but which don’t come naturally to the writer” — On the other hand, isn’t it a good thing at times to try and stretch yourself beyond what you’re currently doing — using techniques that don’t come naturally at the moment, but may do so once you learn by practice to use them?

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Hi Rick, yes, I know I’ve experimented with this before and you can learn useful insights about yourself and your writing. I’m thinking Lin must have had certain authors or books in mind when he said this. On the other hand, i know that fantasy is probably way out of my zone and detective stuff too…but I wouldn’t let this put me off using aspects of these within a broader story. My latest novel, ended up incorporating a hunt for information by two of the characters and crime elements too – so never say never!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Libby Sommer says:

    and then there’s, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Well said, Libby. I remember seeing a traditional portrait by Picasso and being unable to believe he’d painted it. It was then that I began to see what training was all about and then developing your own style, and Picasso certainly did that!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A.P. says:

    “The technique of writing is to literature as dogmas are to the church – the occupation with trivial things by trivial minds.” — WOW.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mr Lin is full of common sense isn’t he – and all done with a bit of sly humour too. (diarrhoea mistaken for birth pains) I’m grateful you introduced me to him!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank you Pauline. I’m still not finished the book, he writes on so many aspects of life! I especially love the nature content and seeing it from a traditional chinese point of view – some lovely imagery!

      Liked by 1 person

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