Approaching writing on the basis of accumulated experience rather than a set of rules such as grammar is natural for some people but can cause problems when confronted with an education system based on rules.
The stigmatisation of those who don’t think like the school
School taught me that I was lousy in English because I couldn’t spell, had no notion of grammar and my attempts at writing were wild and badly structured. Rather than help me channel and structure my overflowing imagination, my English teachers said there was no hope and turned their backs on me as they shoved me in the direction of maths which I was ‘good’ at. Now sixty years later I have published eleven novels and as many more are in the works. Maybe I wasn’t ready to write back then, but the stigma inflicted by those teachers and that whole system has left me with a deep-seated mistrust of schooling and in particular the teaching of English and the continuing emphasis on grammar. Before those of you who are passionate about grammar (grammar-uber-alles) dust off your blunderbuss, let me insist, when it comes to being able to write and get pleasure from it, grammar is more of a hinderance than a help, certainly for people like me.
Does it ‘sound’ right?
I suspect a large part of my aversion to grammar stems from the way I check whether what has been written is ‘right’. I handle writing rather like I do computers. I could not tell you how to solve a particular problem with a computer till I have sat down in front of the screen and gone through the motions. It’s a habit that annoys my wife. She expects a cogent explanation straight away. I have little codified knowledge of what to do. With words and sentences, it’s the same. I have to plunge into the language and weigh up what is written with my ears, with my eyes and with my experience. The latter stems from much writing as well as reading and listening to a great deal of books, not mention how people talk. Does this dialogue sound right? Can this sentence follow on from the one before without sounding repetitious? Does that sequence of words flow well or is it clumsy? Does the last sentence of the chapter or paragraph provide a satisfactory cadence? Not only do I not have any rule-based way of answering these questions, but the idea of having recourse to a determined set of instructions or ‘recipes’ is completely alien to me.
The difficulty of sharing experience
One of the difficulties with such an approach to writing is not being able to explain why a dialogue sounds clumsy or un-lifelike. This difficulty is all the more acute when others, who apparently don’t share the same approach and who seem to lack a feeling for the language, willingly grant approval for that which sounds wrong to me. They act so sure, often based on what they’ve read about writing or learnt on a course, that it has me doubting my judgement. I am largely ‘limited’ to sensing that such a sentence doesn’t ‘work’ and offering alternate formulations which ring better, but the option is not necessarily helpful to the would-be writer. In such an ‘experience-based’ approach, the difficulty is to get the other to live the experience rather than learn a rule or follow instructions, neither of which I have at hand.
Summarising a novel
Possibly related to this approach to language is the difficulty I experience in succinctly relating a story that I have written. My approch to writing, which I have called elsewhere ‘inspirational’ (1), is similarly based on experience, not predetermined structures. I have to ‘live’ the story to be able to tell it. I have no idea what will be on the next page till I get there. I imagine that providing a summary of a story is easy enough for someone whose story starts from a summary. Whereas I am largely immersed in the details of the story as a living experience and have no such overarching story structure to refer to even if I might have an idea where I want to get to by the end.
(1) See The inspirational writer and The art of letting a story write itself
2 Replies to “An experienced-based approach to language and writing”
What a great article! How true, can I only say. I write in English even if mother tongue is German, but no matter if in German or English, I just sense the melody of a sentence. I don’t care too much about grammar but I hear the sound, feel the energy of a sentence like a wave and just know it has to be like that, even if it isn’t by the rules.
Following this path, we are sometimes at odds with common rules and structure but I deeply believe it carries something deeper that the reader senses more than sees objectively.
Glad to see, there are others who have a similar approach. Thank you Alan.
Glad my article found an echo in you, Marlene. Thanks for writing to tell me so. It took me a long time to realise that spelling and grammar were not the ‘gods’ they were made out to be. As a result, I only started (novel) writing much later in life. The positive side of that delay was that, by writing a lot of articles for Connected Magazine, I managed to narrow the gap between what I wrote and what I wanted to say. Also I accumulated a lot of (life) experience that came to underpin my novels.Alan.