Come out from behind your disguise
The more I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing, the stronger it resonates. I am even reading the book front to back. Richard Ford, in a review of the book, wrote “You don’t even need to read it front to back (probably you couldn’t, anyway).” I took that as a challenge, obviously, because I’m an overgrown teenager when it comes to that sort of thing. (Then again, I tend to read books front to back.) And from what I’ve read of the Klinkenborg, I think it’s meant to be read from the start, following the sentences like a carefully crafted argument. The sentences build one upon the other. One after the other. Dipping into the book at random would offer meagre rewards unless the book had been previously digested whole.
Klinkenborg has at last made clear to me why I love reading Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg on writing. It’s not just the subject matter. What Klinkenborg has explained in his wonderful little manual on sentences is how sentences can express sincerity and honesty. How they are used to build trust. And with Goldberg and Lamott trust is what I feel when reading them. I trust them because I believe them. I believe the sentences they build. I recognise in their sentences and the vocabulary and structure within those sentences that they are sincere.
I can look to apply this to my own writing. The most frequent criticism I had about my writing when I was younger — much younger — was that it was mannered. Mannered writing is a sure sign that the writer is trying to both hide emotion and to make extra claims for his writing at the same time. The sentences read as if they were written to sound like writing rather than to express thought honestly and openly. Mannered writing, in short, fails to convey sincerity.
This was true, of course. I was writing in a style that I thought made me look clever. Made me look and sound like a writer. It was more important to look flash than to say what I meant in a form that allowed people to discover what I meant. Writing, in other words, as a form of disguise.
And the bad habit of mannered writing is a hard habit to kick.
There is a certain irony in this. One of the freelance writing jobs I’ve done from time to time in the past twenty years or so is as a consultant helping business executives break away from ‘corporate speak’ in emails and websites and press releases. Coaching them to find their voices. To try to be both genuine and human enough to connect with their readers, whether inside or outside the company. Anyone who has ever read ‘official’ company emails or scrolled through yet another corporate website full of ‘services’ and ‘offerings’ without ever quite discovering what the company does will understand the problem.
But, as with many things, it appears it is easier to teach than to learn.
It is both heartening and distressing to realise that at my age I am still learning things. Heartening because learning gives you new life; distressing because some of the things I learn I feel I should have learned a long time ago. Many of these things make me sit back, sigh, and say to myself “how come you didn’t know this?” The only way to move forward from that is to shrug.
Is it a good sign that I’m doing a lot of shrugging these days?