I don’t normally post on a Monday but I wrote it yonks ago and this keeps being pushed down the list. Here it is.
I recently read So They Call You Pisher!, the memoir of children’s author Michael Rosen, and greatly enjoyed it. A fair few bits of the book grabbed me, particularly a discussion about his years studying English at Oxford University. He attended one lecture where the lecturer proceeded to spend a whole hour talking about one word in the epic poem ‘Beowulf’. The word was ‘Hwaet’, apparently the origin of the English word ‘what’. Rosen writes: ‘In this moment of the epic it means ‘Lo!’ or ‘Listen!’ It’s how the storyteller grabbed people’s attention’. It got me thinking about writing more generally. At high school I was taught that the first line is incredibly important in any piece of writing. It shapes how the piece will go for both the writer and the reader. Sometimes they come to me right away and I can go at a canter through the whole thing. Other times, they just don’t.
I like concision. I’m not always good at condensing down so I admire those who can. I’ve written here about Muriel Spark who was able to distil a whole lot of character traits, even a whole atmosphere to a few carefully-chosen words. Muriel Spark was a poet and there are quite a few writers who use poetry to craft their prose, for flow and brevity, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin being but two. I myself used to write poetry when I was a teenager. There was a point when I wrote more poetry than I did prose and it was hard to switch between them. For lots of years I’ve written stories in the form of a dialogue like a script and I think that’s helped hone my style too, attempting to write in my own voice or that of characters.
For me writing is about being natural and I try to write almost as I speak. Not quite since writing is essentially about keeping control of mind magma, putting those ideas into some sense. The first line does set a tone and I usually keep to a short sentence. Writing is about ducking and diving so the sentences can vary in length and in punctuation. It keeps things from getting boring. I like punctuation. Dashes and semi-colons are my friends. Commas are good. They are natural pauses. That very rare creature, the Oxford comma, is very useful and I am in favour of them. I read this morning that Kirsty Logan does too so I’m in good company. (For more Oxford comma goodness, try and follow @IAmOxfordComma on Twitter. You’ll be glad you did. Don’t listen to Vampire Weekend who had a song with the lyric ‘Who gives a fuck about the Oxford comma?’ I do, Vampire Weekend, so beat it.)
I wish we could begin all sentences with ‘Lo!’. An Act of Parliament in the UK, but not the Scottish Parliament, Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies incidentally, begins with the great phrase: ‘Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—’ What an amazing phrase! This was taken from the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017, incidentally, which I’m sure is important but deeply boring to actually read, especially if you’re not a lawyer. It sounds like magic. That’s what words are, though. They are portals to another world and help us to understand and make sense of this one. It isn’t a bad idea to begin anything with ‘what’ either, since through writing we can very often find the answers we have been searching for, if only we start with the right questions.
Sources and further reading –
Rosen, Michael, So They Call You Pisher! A Memoir, 2017, London: Verso, p. 266
Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/34/introduction/enacted