Saturday, March 27, 2010

At a Loss For Words

powell autobiography

My favorite novel of the 20th century is probably Anthony Powell's twelve-volume marathon, A Dance to the Music of Time, written between 1951 and 1975. Supremely civilized, enormous in design, an unforgettable picture of a way of life (and a class) that were disappearing even when Powell was one of the "bright young people" who were so visible in the 1920s in London, the books that make up Dance are also very funny.

I first read them when I was in my early thirties, and the story (in the first three books) of the friendship of three boys thrown together in school and the gradual dissolution of those friendships as the world calls the young men in different directions, meant a great deal to me at the time. I'd never read anything that seemed to speak so directly to my own life. This was emphasized by the loss, in the book, of one boy -- the most brilliant one -- into a life of drink and another into sexual dissipation that ruins his relationships and irremediably coarsens his character. I had watched several friends hit the rocks by that time and had sailed pretty close to them myself.

The remaining books chronicle the irresistible rise of the boy the others had scorned, the implacable Widmerpool, who amasses power almost as revenge for being unloved and unliked, and who demonstrates a resilience to humiliation -- even sexual humiliation -- that's almost mythical in scope. I think Widmerpool may be the fictional creation I most admire.

I obviously also admire Powell himself, not least because, like Dickens, he published his story as he made it up, one volume at a time, and then lived with everything he'd written -- no going back, as most of us do, to fix the first half because something better has occurred to us. That requires real courage. It takes me half of a book just to figure out what I'm writing about.

I've just finished reading the four volumes of Powell's memoirs, cumulatively titled To Keep the Ball Rolling, and one of the things that most impresses me is the way he talks about the act of writing. Some of what he says is probably already familiar to anyone who's written a book -- for example: "When actually writing a novel one is conscious at times of an external agency taking over the job, something beyond the processes of thought, conscious planning, or invention." Most novelists, I think, know perfectly well that the book they wind up with won't be the one they set out to write. At least, mine never are.

anthony-powellLike most writers, I talk a lot about writing --about 90% of my own website is made up of advice to help people finish their novels. I talk about most of the things that go into the writing of a book, and I thought I'd touched (at least, in passing and to the best of my ability) on most of the important stuff until I read this in Book Four of the Memoirs: "In the army it is not uncommon for a soldier to keep certain items of his equipment in plain sight purely for the eye of the inspecting officer. These tend to be the things that are easy to care for. Small odd and ends that are a problem to clean or assemble, even though they may be used daily, are stowed away out of sight. This is rather like what writers usually hand out at interviews."

This caught me completely offguard. I realized that I talk on my site about plot and character and structure and setting and, and, and -- all the obvious stuff -- but that I never, and I mean never, talk about words. I think I say somewhere that I generally prefer language that's transparent, a window to see the action through, not something that calls attention to itself and to the writer at the expense of the story. But I work very damned hard to find the words I use to create that prose, and I never, ever discuss that. I think this is the first time I've ever even alluded to it.

The only reason I can think of is that the actual language I use in my books is the aspect of my writing about which I'm least secure. It's the hardest part of the process and the one over which I agonize most. (Except for the invariable plot crisis that always threatens the book and is usually resolved in the shower.) One of my problems as a writer is that I'm glib, and glibness has absolutely nothing to recommend it if you're trying to tell a story with any emotional weight. So, hmmmm. I'd love to hear from the other writers here (and those of you out there) about which aspect of writing you almost never discuss, and why you think that is.


Tim -- Sunday


  1. I love Dance too, Tim. They gain credence and resonance with age (mine, not the books) - particularly when you realise that by and large we are all governed, wherever we maybe, by the Widmerpools of this world.

    It's the words I discuss least too. I talk about ideas, about plot and character, but when the first proofs arrive, and I have a quick glance, it's not a clunky plotline or a one dimensional character that makes me wince. It's a poor choice of words or a clumsy turn of phrase. I downplay the words I use and choose for many of the reasons you mention - it's the story that matters, the pace, the tension and everything is sacrificed to that. Fact is, it's good writing that make a good story better, create more tension and pace. I think we're not alone. I have heard writers say, 'I can do dialogue well,' or 'I'm an ideas man/woman' or 'I spend all my time on character' and very few say 'I write like a dream' or even 'I couldn't write crap on a steamy window.' I'd suggest it's the one area most of us feel insecure about.

  2. Ahh, Dan -- Those of us who have fallen in love with A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME are a small club, but we love it so much it doesn't matter that we don't have more company. (By the way, I want all 12 on first editions, with dust jsckets, and I wonder what kind of $$$ that's going to be.)

    Isn't it funny -- writing is essentially putting one word behind another but it's the hardest thing to talk about, and we probably are more insecure about our language than any other aspect of our writing.

    Widmerpools do, in fact, rule the world.

  3. I haven't read the books, but I certainly intend to do so now!

    On the word issue, I must say that Stan and I spend a lot of time talking about, choosing and rewriting words. Sometimes we go through five iterations and end up with the original (perhaps having forgotten what it was). Usually we feel that one person's changes improve the other person's draft. I guess if nothing else it gives us someone else to blame for cumbersome phrasing.

    I realise this doesn't address your question. Do we talk about our choice of words to other people? Not much. I thought that was because most of the time people want to know how we go about choosing them TOGETHER rather than how we choose them in the first and last place. But maybe it does go deeper than that...

  4. Hi Dan - funny, I thought I was the only writer that experiences a mental twisted tounge at times. Sometimes I hate my language because it has so few words and envy those who have English at their fingertips. It is when I know what I want to describe but just can't seem to make it flow properly. The anguish - thankfully often followed by a sense of fullfillment when I pass the hurdle (not always very poetically).