Books on writing bore me. Either they focus too much on grammatical do’s and don’ts or they exalt the intangible features of good writing that are caught, not taught. That’s why most writing books leave me with a passionate desire to write more – not because they’ve inspired me but because I’d much rather go ahead and write than read another boring book about writing.
Doug Wilson’s brief book Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life is a delightful exception. Wilson only has seven exhortations for us writer-wanna-be’s, and he delivers them in two pages. That’s right. In two pages, you get the gist of the book, but those two pages will whet your appetite for what the rest of the book delivers.
Reading Wordsmithy is a lot like savoring a meal at the same time you are learning to cook. As you learn how to mix up the ingredients that make for good writing, Wilson dons his chef’s hat in order to properly demonstrate all that he is exhorting you to. In other words, you won’t leave the table hungry.
After reading Wordsmithy, I sent Doug a few questions about writing. Here are his answers:
Trevin Wax: When did you first begin to write?
Doug Wilson: I remember wanting to “make books” around the sixth grade. And I think I wrote my first poem around the same time (it was about a sea anemone). But I did not seriously begin to write until after my stint in the Navy, when I was around 22.
Trevin Wax: Have you always found joy in the writing process? Or is joy something that has developed over time?
Doug Wilson: When I began to set myself to writing, my initial efforts were pretty stiff and cardboardy. But I wanted to do it and wanted to learn how to do it.
I think that I knew from the beginning that joy was the point. My wife already had her degree in English Lit, and I was a philosophy major. She knew how to type, and at the time I didn’t, so she would type out my papers for me. I must have set myself to making it interesting early on because I remember her telling me that I couldn’t put things “like that” in an academic paper. I had enjoyed reading lively writing from the time I was in high school (C.S. Lewis, William F. Buckley, et al.), and I knew I wanted to move in that direction if I could figure out how. Other models came later – e.g. Wodehouse, Mencken.
Trevin Wax: One of the takeaways from your book is that writers should know the rules of grammar but also be willing to bend them. Are you a word fusser or a word libertine?
Doug Wilson: I would say I am a fusser on the basics and a libertine around the edges. To illustrate, I think table manners are essential to civilized life, but if the court of Louis XIV demands 22 salad forks, my sympathies move to the antinomians.
Clear thinking and clear writing go together, and the rules of grammar are (for the most part) dedicated to keeping things clear. When they begin to obscure that clarity and become counterproductive, then it is time to remember that man was not made for the Sabbath.
Trevin Wax: What’s the correlation between good reading and good writing?
Doug Wilson: Good reading is foundational. Constant exposure to that which is undeniably good helps train your ear. It helps train you to throw out things that are guilty of no writing “sin” but that are equally free of any virtue. A melody can be dull without breaking any musical laws, and writing can come off like it was written by a committee without parts or passions. Reading good stuff educates a future writer in the intangibles.
Trevin Wax: What’s your take on the current state of the “blogosphere”? Do blogs help us write better?
Doug Wilson: Some blogs are great, of course, but most of that world is just noise. And most of the really good stuff is going to find its way into print. Blogs are a way for a prospective writer to make it in the minors.
The best thing about blogs is that they provide a dedicated writer with an occasion to crank it out in a disciplined fashion. If he gets good, his blog will get noticed, or his writing talents will be. But this only works because this part of our world is like the rest of the world. Cream rises, which only works if it is not all cream.