In “Why I Write,” Orwell says as long as he remains alive he will continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solidobjects and scraps of useless information. He then goes on to say that of late years (he was all of 43 at the time!) he has tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly.
In 1976, at the Saranac Lake Writers Conference, John Hawkes and I staged an “argument” pitting pure aesthetic invention against life-based fiction. I say “staged,” because we had gone for a walk in the woods the day before, and, knowing our audience would expect us to be representing our different approaches to writing fiction, we decided to accentuate the differences to make it more dramatic. Hawkes opened our performance by taking the side of Nabokov, who said he was not interested in any fiction unless it gave him “aesthetic bliss.” Hawkes said he started with an image and let it take him somewhere. That for him, fiction should create the reality, rather than fiction reflecting a reality. The beauties of the language , he emphasized, were what he cared about most. To which I replied, “if necessary, I will risk a page of cliches to find out something I didn’t know.” Inferring, of course, that after I found it out I would go back and remove the cliches.
(For more dialogues like this, get a copy of The Lost Saranac Interviews, Conversations With Famous Writers, by Joe David Bellamy and Connie Bellamy. (In our dialogue, Hawkes and I ended up laughing and positing what it would be like to try both.)
Flora and a Change of Style
During the writing of Flora, my fourteenth novel, I noticed that my writing style was undergoing a change. The momentum was swifter, with fewer digressions and dependent clauses. I was shaping a shorter, sharper sentence and working toward as essentialness in theme I found almost severe at times. Was I becoming harder to please or just losing more words? Well, maybe both. In younger days, I would languidly reach for the right word like reaching up for a bell pull, and servants flocked to the room bearing trays of possibilities. Now, more than likely, I stop, search for a word, and know I have to give my faithful remaining old servant time to climb the stairs, bearing his old wooden tray, which now carries one good word.
In Grief Cottage, my sixteenth novel, a ninety-five-year-old lady, Coral Upchurch, tells her eleven year old visitor, “When I remember his name, Marcus, I will write it down for you. These days, I have to put in requests to my brain, as one does at the library, and then a little worker takes my slip and disappears into the stacks. It may take him a while, but he always comes back with the goods.”
As long as a writer has one faithful old servant or a little librarian disappearing into the stacks with your slip clutched in his hand you will be all right.
This is the time for plain talk,” began a recent newspaper editorial, after the latest assault on our political stability had appalled us. It resonates with Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls.” (1776)
Certainly the swift, plain, candid utterance is the order of our times!