Writing is as much a performance art as anything else. Let me explain.
Writing is a constant learning curve, but there are stages along the way – and these include the Pit of Illusory Skill. This happens when newly acquired knowledge isn’t accompanied by experience – because ‘the rules’, strictly speaking, don’t define quality. They’re necessary to know – but don’t express all that writing must be. The analogy is music, which delivers to listeners the same emotional charge that great writing also provides to readers. Naturally according to personal taste – among other things (more on that soon) – but there are still principles that work across the field.
Let me explain. If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid. I know: I started playing it like that, way back when.
That was soon corrected by my piano teacher: the trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer. Some of the requirements were obvious: Beethoven wanted the first movement to evoke shimmering, so the triplets couldn’t be played straight: they had to float dynamically. That demanded subtle changes of both volume and rhythm, something that from Beethoven’s perspective had only recently been made possible via that mad new keyboard instrument called a Soft Loud (aka ‘Tranquil Strong’). This was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early eighteenth century, but it took a while for composers to figure out what it could really do emotionally. Bach didn’t like the piano he heard. Now go listen to one of Mozart’s piano pieces and compare it to Beethoven.
There was the time I talked my way into playing a 92-key Bösendorfer concert grand, which has a phenomenal tone colour that to my mind blows a Steinway Model D into the ground when it comes to being able to express emotional feel. I hit it with ‘Louie Louie’. But I digress.
I won’t inflict my own playing on you. Trust me, it’s better that way. There are reasons why I chose writing. Instead, check out this lovely interpretation by Tiffany Poon. Watch, particularly, as she prepares herself – the piece starts 45 seconds in. This is something writers need to do too, before writing. And yes, it’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.
That’s the thing about writing. You can obey the rules – but knowing how to make the writing express itself, to invoke the emotion you want in the reader is a learned skill. It means bending those rules in a controlled way – and that skill only comes with experience. What’s more, there’s only one way to get that experience – which is to keep writing, keep learning, and don’t be afraid to throw away the practise stuff. Engage in writing exercises. One of my favourites is this:
- Write a passage, say 150 words, involving (i) a character action, and (ii) their emotional response to it, ideally with dialogue. Write it as you normally would.
- Read something by an author of known quality – J K Rowling, for instance, whose work is extremely good on all levels, including styling.
- Look at the rhythm of the words – the flow of the text. Identify what the unique features are in the selected author’s work.
- Now write that original passage of your own again, this time deliberately ‘in the style of’ the chosen other author.
- Compare the two passages for flow.
- Repeat the exercise with another author.
Do this enough, and that ability to mould words – to understand how styling works – should emerge. Probably by bursting upon you, suddenly, when you least expect it.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015