Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ecstasy, Yes... But Keep On Truckin'

When I began to write seriously (back in the Late Devonian), I imposed on myself a strict set of guidelines, and the most inflexible rule was that I could write only in a spare style.

In this I was motivated not by any classical desire for purity, but because I wanted to build a rock-solid foundation for my true ambition: to smash down the walls and to go wild.

I loved writers who wrote with abandon, with ecstasy, with passages of neon colour and all the brass of the orchestra bellowing for blood, and I very much wanted to bellow.

At the same time, I recognized the value of self-discipline; I understood the need for pacing, variety of tone, and a structure of narrative that would build towards and justify these loud and colourful passages.

What I sought to do, then, was to teach myself how to write without ornamentation, so that I could gain a sense of when it might be appropriate to blast the brass. To this end, I wrote for years without allowing myself more than the bare minimum of adjectives, and I still recall a day when I found myself shocked at the realization that I would have to use an adverb.

The result was a pile of prose that no one could want to read, but in the process I learned some lessons of value.

I also learned by studying these colourful passages from the writers I admired, and I came to realize that even here, there was more self-discipline at work than I had supposed.

One of these writers was Clark Ashton Smith: loved by a few, loathed by a few more, ignored by all the rest. Even today, in our age of post-literacy, some readers are still able to respect elaborate and labyrinthine stylists like Thomas de Quincey and Thomas Browne, but not many people seem able to stomach the prose of Clark Ashton Smith.

I love it.

And more to the point, his work taught me a fundamental principle that I keep in mind whenever I create a story:

No matter how elaborate the prose might be, no matter how dense the physical description or purple the rhetoric, the story must keep moving.

Smith kept his elaborately-written stories in motion by making sure that his prose did many things at once.

For example, instead of imposing a speed-bump with a static description of a landscape or a building, he would have his character walk through the scene, and while in motion, observe the details that came to him with every turning passage or opening door. The result was a sense of being there, of seeing not only what the character saw, but seeing with him.

In short, instead of interrupting the story, the descriptions became the story; and like the narrative itself, the descriptions kept on moving.

This might sound elementary, perhaps even too simple for consideration. Yet I've read many writers who never seemed to grasp this fundamental principle, who never seemed to realize that a story is not a painting. A story moves.

So yes, bring on the neon colour, bring on the bellowing brass. But even here, lurking behind the curtains, you often find self-discipline and craftsmanship.

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