Feeding the hunger
Not sick of self-love

Lots of them: why being drunk on words is an honourable state

I happened to say on a forum just now that I'd much rather see a beginner's manuscript which is very over-written, than very under-written, since being drunk on words is a very honourable state for an apprentice writer. From the teacher's point of view it's not so hard to teach why wearing one diamond necklace is actually more effective than wearing three, and how to choose which one to leave on.

Whereas a beginner's manuscript which is just bald, 'Then he did this, then I did that', over and over again, is usually a sign of someone who for whom words will never really be a workable medium of expression. Either that, or someone who mistakenly thinks that Hemingway is God. Too often the talk among writers assumes that the opposite of 'spare' writing is 'purple'. (Hemingway is a relevant name-check here, because the talk among such is so often busy covering up a terror of emotional engagement, with a neurotic machismo.) You could equally well say that the opposite of 'rich' writing is 'impoverished'.

What's really going on with a successful spare writer is that they've learn to use the richness of individual words to their full extent, by being in very close control of the setting of each jewel, including a sharp ear for what will be read in the spaces between all the elements. But that takes a kind of mastery which is exceedingly rare in a beginner. Equally rare in a beginner is the mastery which can use a huge palette, filled to overflowing with colours and substances, in such a way that they enhance each other rather than cancelling each other out: a lavish richness which is controlled.

On that forum, someone disagreed with what I'd said, on the grounds that being drunk on words is the same as loving the sound of your own voice. But I don't think it is at all. Anyone who's read a Donne sonnet, or the opening of Bleak House, or a page of James Joyce or William Golding, and feels as if they've had a skin stripped off them and their ears, eyes, nose and mouth cleaned out so that they're more alive than they ever have been, is drunk on words.

That word-drunken beginner writer is trying to make the most of that accuracy and allusiveness and flexibility of words, but they're not in control: far too many words, perhaps used loosely or wrongly, almost certainly too many of them, so that they mess with each other and weaken the overall result. Too many wild horses harnessed to a single chariot is not a good way of getting where you want to go. But far better that, surely, than a would-be writer who uses words as Mark Lawson said of Michael Crichton, as 'a bare and ugly skeleton' for ideas and plot: the impoverished functionality of a single old nag pulling a cart just faster than walking pace. (And let's not get into the impoverished over-writing of a certain kind of journalism/management-jargon/self-help speak...)

Loving the sound of your own voice, as the phrase is usually used, is the exact opposite. People who love the sound of their own voice annoy us not because of what they're saying - they may genuinely be good talkers - but because they go on too long, and/or with too little regard for who their listeners are and whether those listeners are bored ... and yes, of course there are writers like that.

The equivalent in writing is of the writer closing their mind and senses to others and his/her effect on them. It's about ego-centricity, and once you're beyond the centrally egotistical claim of writing - that what you want to say is something others might want to hear - the basic crafts of writing are all about letting go of the self, and working with what others make of words. That's why reading the words of others goes on being the essential fuel for writers long after we've mastered our craft: our fuel is other words, other minds, other stories and sensibilites and jokes and ideas. Lots of them.

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