Just You Wait
Condensing the cloud of unknowing

Leaving Eden

A friend is taking some excellent creative writing classes. She described how she'd gone back to a favourite short story and read it again. And suddenly she was aware of clichés of expression and idea, of slacknesses, of how the story did and didn't work well in its tradition. Those of us who are writers nodded, because, in a way, one of the necessities of learning to write is losing your innocence.

We can all remember the all-consuming pleasure of reading as a child. On more than one holiday day I demolished my six books, and took them back to the library and got six more. It's probably what made us writers. That joyful abandonment is rarer as adult, perhaps because there's always something dull and grown-up we're half-aware is waiting for us when we close the book. But however much natural talent for words someone has, to become a writer you have to become conscious of how words work, how reading, and therefore writing, operate. I'm not talking about grammar and punctuation, though you need to know how they work too if you're to get what you want to say across. I'm talking about something much more wide-ranging. You don't just have to learn to write correctly; you have absorb the multiple possibilities and flexibilities of sound and sense so thoroughly that what the story you're telling demands, you can supply. And then you have to learn to read that first draft to see exactly where you have, and haven't, made the best of those possibilities, and make more of them.

Which means, of course, that without even meaning to, you begin to see where another writer has, and hasn't, done the same. The better the writer, the more often they'll astonish you with a possibility you'd never have dreamt of. You read more richly, picking up the subtleties, the subtexts and layers of meaning, seeing the vast patterns and the tiny ones. The duller the writer, the less of these things there are to astonish you, but most books have some such pleasures. But they're pleasures you know you're having.

What you can't ever quite do is switch off. You can turn the writing geiger-counter's sensitivity up or down, of course. For a fun read in the bath, in a genre I enjoy, I'll happily read okay prose if I'm enjoying the plot and characters. For a writer I admire, I'll turn up the geiger-counter for the sheer pleasure of noticing their art, and trust that any lessons I should learn will be soaking in. For an editorial report, it's turned well up, while for my own writing it'll be in the red zone.

But what I can't do is read as I once did, so deep in the book that I scarcely know that I exist. I've willingly eaten of the tree of knowledge, and left that Eden. For better, or worse, I'm a grown up now.