Friday, 1 October 2010

Creative Writing Course: Lesson Four

The Evolution of Language

The history of literature is most visible in the changing face of its language. This is Mr. Lockwood describing his arrival at Wuthering Heights, the book being published in 1847:

   'One step brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage. They call it here "the house" pre-eminently. It includes kitchen and parlour generally. But, I believe, at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter -- at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues and a clatter of culinary utensils deep within; and I observed no signs of roasting, boiling, or baking about the huge fireplace, nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been underdrawn; its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham concealed it. Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns and a couple of horse-pistols, and, by way of ornament, three gaudily painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was of smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures painted green, one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch under the dresser reposed a huge liver-coloured bitch pointer surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies, and other dogs haunted other recesses.'

This is a description of Bunker's Hill in the opening chapter of Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, published in 1913:

  'The houses themselves were substantial and very decent. One could walk all round, seeing little front gardens with auriculas and saxifrage in the shadow of the bottom block, sweet-williams and pinks in the sunny top block; seeing neat front windows, little porches, little privet hedges, and dormer windows for the attics. But that was outside; that was the view on to the uninhabited parlours of all the colliers' wives. The dwelling-room, the kitchen, was at the back of the house, facing inward between the blocks, looking at a scrubby back garden, and then at the ash-pits. And between the rows, between the long lines of ash-pits, went the alley, where the children played and the women gossiped and the men smoked. So, the actual conditions of living in the Bottoms, that was so well built and that looked so nice, were quite unsavoury because people must live in the kitchen, and the kitchens opened on to that nasty alley of ash-pits.'

Both passages are highly descriptive, but you can sense a shift in attitude: where Emily Brontë's prose moves at a somewhat leisurely pace, Lawrence's is marginally more brisk. Sixty-six years later, the reader has less time to linger, to luxuriate in a bath of language, especially as it is a year tense with the anticipation of war. After the Great War, of course, all lies in fragments, as best exemplified in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

Today's Shorthand 

Now, nearly a century after Sons and Lovers, with barely the time to identify our arse from our elbow, we have developed a sophisticated shorthand to compress and read information. This is in no small part due to the influence of film, the internet, texts on mobile/cell phones and all pervasive graphics .

Why do I go on about history when you are trying to write a book today? Because you are the child of history. You are in a process. And you need to understand the process and why we have arrived at this point to write successfully for a contemporary readership. Okay, I doubt Dan Brown cares a fig about history - well of course he does; he's managed to reinvent it very successfully in a language neanderthals would have understood.

Understand the History of Your Genre

My point is not that you as a writer of a particular genre need to go back to university but that you, as the writer of a particular genre, should understand how that genre has changed over the years and why it has now reached the point it has. Understanding this will help make your writing pertinent, contemporary and, with luck, more publishable. It will also help you push the envelope, to use an ugly metaphor, of the genre and write something truly original.

In brief, my message is to read in and around what you like to write about. But to read critically.

No comments: