The Elements of Style

I don't like the way I write. At least, not as much as I like the way some of my favorite authors--Barbara Newman, Elaine Scarry, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien--do. Somehow the words just never come out the way I want them to; and yet, every time I try to write in some other way, it just seems fake, not my voice at all.

I could try writing like my sister, more observationally, less argumentatively, which is not to say that she doesn't make arguments, just that she is not bound as I am to make apologies (like this one) for every claim that she makes. I wish that I could write more like my friend Barbara; if you know her work, you will know why. She is so subtle and yet so profound in the problems that she sets; you think you are reading something simply about a particular text, and before you know it, the whole structure of medieval religious thinking has been turned inside out and laid bare. Scarry is another matter altogether: she is dense and difficult right from the start. Nobody I know writes anything like she does. I spend half my time reading her asking, "Where on earth did she learn to write like this?," and the other half marveling at how abruptly she is able to make her claims. Unlike me, nowhere does Scarry use the word "I" (at least, it does not feature in the way the first person pronoun, singular or plural, does in my work) and yet everything she says feels wholly idiosyncratic, as if she is the only one who has ever thought that thought or seen the world in that particular way. Tolkien (I assume I don't need to make a hyperlink to Tolkien!) is similar--and similarly frustrating--in that he writes and thinks like nobody else; thus, I would argue [by the by, a phrase Scarry would never use], the consternation that so many modernist critics have felt in confronting his greatest work: not a novel, but not a "primary" source, but somehow nevertheless scriptural in its cultural effect. Sayers is marvelous for a whole other reason, because she experimented with so many styles herself, both as a novelist and as a scholar. If only I could be as flexible and daring as she!

How is it that we have the style that we do? C.S. Lewis was an exceptional mimic, able to translate others' style into his own; A.S. Byatt consciously adapts her style to the tone of each of her books; Terry Pratchett writes novels that are fairytales and contemporary parodies all at the same time--and how does he always manage to find exactly the right word? Did they consciously create these styles, or was it just the way the words came to them? I'm not even very good at writing about how much I like the style of the authors whom I read most, much less sure that I have a style of my own other than generic "blogpost" or "academic." I cannot imagine translating my thoughts into a wholly other style. Perhaps I should try.... Except that I can't do it. To write in another's style would seem to involve being able to think another's thoughts. Not so much empathy as, well, telepathy; sharing another's cognitive structure, making sense of the world through another's mind. Is it simply a question of genre? Could I write like Pratchett, e.g., if I set out to write a fantasy parody? "Once upon a time there was a frog. Who saw colors. And wanted to marry a witch." It's the position from which we view the world, whether we need to defend ourselves or make a point. No, not that either. I'm just thinking out loud here, watching my thoughts and wondering why they take the shape that they do. Toying with the possibility of being someone else but stuck irretrievably in my own habits of diction and vocabulary. I wish in my academic writing I could write more like Scarry, abstracting myself from the argument, letting the argument simply take a particular shape. But I can't. I'm always too aware that it is I, Rachel (or Fencing Bear), who is writing; these aren't eternal or structural truths, they are the glimmers of understanding that I think that I've had. Perhaps others will share them or recognize something in them that they, too, have experienced or understood. But I am afraid to speak for all time as if what I have seen is true beyond the qualification that it is my perception.

Or perhaps it is that I am afraid to let go of myself and be absorbed into the characters or arguments that my words are making. I like imagining myself into stories--it's one of the things that I find off-putting about most academic writing; it's too objective, always outside of the things that it purports to want to explain--but I seem to have no talent whatsoever for imagining myself into another character (unless we count Fencing Bear, who is, in fact, starting to take on something of a life of her own). Is it because I am always trying to take every character's point of view? Or is it that I tend always to think only in the first person (singular or plural) and find it hard to talk about "he" or "she"? Or "it"? "Fencing is a sport that requires great mental and physical agility." Well, duh. I'd much rather give you (another of my favorite pronouns) a sense of what it is like for me to try to learn to fence; I'm not interested in describing the activity simply, as it were, from the outside. So perhaps my failure to adapt styles is because I am too good at empathizing with my subjects and so incapable (unlike Scarry) of making them into objects of external analysis. Except that the thing I like most about her The Body in Pain is the way in which she takes us inside of the artifact and of the process of making. "Belief as an artifact of imagination" vs. "How, exactly, is it that medieval Christians imagined God?" The question is, how much of her writing is consciously crafted to have the structure and style that it does and how much does it take the form that it does simply because that is the way she thinks? Or is that the question? Another thing she never does in her writing: ask questions. Everything is simply laid out as an answer; one is never even clear what the questions were or why she thought it necessary to make the argument that she did. She just did. Does. Will do.

I saw the design for my new navel ring today and it's beautiful. I am going to be wearing stars and planets in my tummy, a Marian image if ever there were one. Beauty, it would seem, is very like style; or, perhaps, style is an aspect of beauty. I can only wear the jewelry that is right for me. No more big dangly earrings; that was my style when I was younger, but now I am rather more reserved. And my clothes. I spent a half an hour on Saturday trying to figure out what to wear for reading the prayers at the Easter Vigil simply because I thought it would be nice to wear a skirt, but nothing seemed right until I stopped trying to pair the long-flowing skirt with a more elaborate top. How is it that actresses can look if not like themselves, like credible characters in so many different clothes, when I seem to look good only in very particular ones? Mind you, I'm no better at wearing relatively conservative clothes (blouses, loafers, suits) than I am at wearing some of the more extravagant styles to which I am drawn (think Goth/Goddess/RenFaire; yes, I used to be a hippie, well, sort of). Nor, it seems, can I write like a standard academic any better than I can write like Tolkien or Scarry. Do I really wish that I were more of a stylistic chameleon? You should see the shoes that I bought this past weekend: metallic silver "gladiator" style sandals and metallic gold "Mary Jane" style flats. I could no more wear 4" spikes than I could plain brown "sensible" shoes.

So I guess that I just have to accept that I write the way that I do and not worry about it. Or, rather, what I have to worry about is writing in my own style the best that I can. If only I could be sure that it really is a style and not just a pale imitation of a model of which I am not consciously aware.

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