21 Jan 05

Literary Growing Pains

‘There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which the young writer may shape his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion’ (Source: E.B. White, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr & E.B. White, Chpt. 5)

I recently received some books that caused me to think about my writing. Maybe I should have added studying English literature and language to my New Year’s Resolutions, as there seems to be plenty of room for improvement.

This self-assessment began when I started to read Remembrance of Things Past (3294 pages) by Marcel Proust. The three-volume set was thoughtfully sent as a Christmas gift by one of my sister’s colleagues, Jill Shiel. My first impression of Volume 1 was negative, the pace seemed to be too slow. I wondered why Jill had chosen Proust, but after reading over 100 pages I began to suspect that Jill wanted me to read a style of writing par excellence.

Despite my initial doubts I quickly began to enjoy the genius of Marcel Proust. I found myself in awe of his figurative language and I began to reread the sentences that mesmerised me the most. Here are some descriptions I enjoyed.

"…the heat of the day was falling and settling, as though in a vase along the sides of which the transparent, dusky jelly of the air seemed of such consistency that a tall rose-tree, fastened against the dim wall which it veined with pink, looked like the arborescence that one sees at the heart of an onyx."

"…the churches of Criquebec which, in the distance, surrounded by water on every side because you saw them without seeing the town, in a powdery haze of sunlight and crumbling waves, seemed to be emerging from the waters, blown in alabaster or in sea-foam, and, enclosed in the band a variegated rainbow, to form an ethereal, mystical tableau."

After reading Volume 1 of Remembrance of Things Past, I started F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, Tender is the Night.

I am envious of the talents of Proust and Fitzgerald. I have now set about improving my

Unlike my sister, Karen, who has studied English her entire adult life, I have not studied English since high school.

Despite my shortcomings, I am endeavouring to use all of the resources at my disposal to improve my abilities. My father kindly sent me The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus for Christmas and I am seeking approval from the prison’s education department to do some correspondence courses with www.riosalado.edu/ci who provide non-Internet courses for prisoners.
ENG213: Introduction to the Study of Language, would be beneficial. It is described as the Study of language as code: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, language acquisition; historical and socio-linguistics.
ENH275: Modern Fiction, also interest me. It is described as including "novels and short stories for modern writers which reflect significant themes of our time."


Anonymous said...


Don't go getting all prim and proper on us. Your English is fine. Write what you hear and see. Write what you feel. You are not hanging out at Oxford University for Christ's sake.

On television here they have been showing a UK 8-part program called "LOST WORLDS - THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH". It traces the history of modern English and how it came to dominate the world.

Last night's episode focused on the American contributions to the language. In particular, it mentioned ground-breaking American authors who wrote what how the people spoke. Authors such as Mark Twain, Lewis & Clark, Hemingway, etc.

If they have "followed the rules" and chose to write their works in the English as defined by the snobs in New England, we would not have the rich literiture and language we have today.

It also showed how the language of the American blacks and Hispanics enriched the modern language.

Rather than use ancient words used by Proust, see if you can use the language you hear around you in new and imaginative ways.

Anonymous said...

jon, don't change your style, the blog is great as it is, straight from the heart with your own original voice.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,
I have really enjoyed reading your blog and like your writing style. Although a lot of people can probably become good singers under tuition, it seems to me the best, most emotive singers are the ones that haven't been taught and whos passion comes through in their work.
Cheers, Jamie

Anonymous said...

Largely agree with the comments above. The Proust stuff you quoted may well be technically good but to me it comes over as stuffy, pompous, and unecessarily wordy. Does that really work? Can most people relate to what the "heart of an onyx" might look like or is Proust, like so many other literary geniuses, just showing us how clever he is? To use that well worn phrase, keep it real!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry too much about minor stylistic points. Avoiding cliches is a good thing though.

Almost all authors have editors who can whip their work into shape, so the onus is on you to provide the content and narrative- both of which you're doing very well at the moment. Keep it up!

In any case, Proust wrote in French, so any technical mastery of the english language comes courtesy of the translator!


Anonymous said...

I think that the only reason that you would need to improve your writing skills is so that your 'literary arsenal' is fully-stocked when you are truly venting your anger on a subject; it's only when engaging with your foes that you need to be truly on the proverbial ball. Apart from that, your personable phrasing is crucial to your disabling style. I suppose the real key is having a wealth of resources at your disposal and knowing exactly when you need to utilise them. Generally though I'm definitely down with the 'keeping it real' essays.