Thursday, June 27, 2013

A word or two about writing

There's a line from the journals of Katherine Mansfield (from around 1916) that has become something of a staple in writing about writing. As a writer, she tells us, she wants to tell "how the laundry basket squeaked." The point being, I suppose, that if you can get one thing right, you have a chance of getting it all right.

When you think about it, it's a bit of a miracle that these little squiggles on a page can capture and communicate something as elusive as the squeak of a laundry basket. And how will she do it? How will she tell "how the laundry basket squeaked"? Well, she just did it. By putting together three fine words "laundry," "basket" and "squeaked." The phase all by itself has claimed its place in the canon of literature.

The fun of writing is matching words to experience. There are only so many thousands of words in the dictionary, and the world of experience is effectively infinite. But put two, or three, or four words together, and the possible permutations begin to approach the complexity of the world.

Laundry basket squeaked.

The Irish writer Michael McLaverty gave Seamus Heaney a coda to go along with Mansfield's felicitous phrase: "Don't have the veins bulging in your biro." (A biro being a ballpoint pen.) Meaning, don't overwrite. The writing shouldn't get between the reader and the squeak.