Three answers not exactly about style

(A student asked me a couple of questions about style for a project and, because of administrative constraints upon my time, I couldn’t get round to answering her till her deadline was almost upon her. So my responses were, very apologetically, very spontaneous, and probably not much use. Perhaps that means they belong here, rather than in an academic context.

Or perhaps that means there isn’t a border between this blog and that academic context, unless of course I’ve allowed my mode of response to become itself a kind of border, through tone or sphere of reference – ‘style’ at one level.

I’ve been thinking about academic language as a kind of new Latin, in the sense that, alongside its avowed and allowed function of disciplining our thought, it has the side effect of allowing all the ‘clerks’ to think they understand it, while discouraging the ‘commoners’.

That’s a side issue to these three questions except in the important sense that I didn’t try to define what she or I might mean by ‘style’ – surely an area where Theory deserves its say.)

Choosing a style

The idea that we can define and then select a particular style, based on market-led or other categories, goes against the process-based manner in which many writers work. We are inside a process we often do not fully understand, or at least cannot fully articulate, whereby our practice as a writer defines our style gradually for us.

We learn what we are good at, rather than what we want to be good at, and our conscious intervention through choice is just one factor alongside direct and indirect influences (both literary and non-literary) of many sorts. What we like as audience may not ‘like’ us as practitioners. When we read or see something that strikes us as significant will be as important as what that something is – sometimes we’re ready or able to incorporate an influence, and sometimes we’re not.

Choosing poetry, prose or script

Ideally we would choose between poetry, prose or script depending on an informed understanding of what might suit the idea best. But we are not very often ideal versions of ourselves, we are not always informed rather than (however unconsciously) prejudiced, and the idea itself may not exist in a prior form suitable for being ‘translated’ into one mode rather than another.

All we can do is attempt to be as self aware as possible about our own processes of writing (which are largely processes of revision – or rethinking something through rewriting it), while not falling into the trap of being self-conscious about them. Models, both of form and method, can help to the extent that we test them by enactment, trying them on for size while realising that what they do or do not fit may be the piece of writing, rather than us as writers.

Choosing poetry over prose or prose over script or script over poetry, etc, is as much about time management as it is about the market (ie do you have the time to test what works best?) and as much about inclination as calculation.

Should you just be spontaneous?

It is actually very hard to be spontaneous, which is why people usually prefer picking and choosing between readymade structures and methods. Constant practice, constant reading, and constant alertness sounds like an impossible discipline, and indeed so it proves for most of us most of the time. So I aim for persistent practice, reading, and alertness, just returning to what concerns me about my writing whenever I realise my attention has drifted. I keep trying to take the step back, to contextualise the work, and then the step in, to make it into text at all.

Sometimes a gesture comes in which all these issues seem to achieve a sort of balance, and that can feel spontaneous. Whether it’s also stylish is a further subject for debate with yourself and with your peers.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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