I made the mistake of responding to a recent blog – about rules in writing – with a glib point about ‘primitive writers’ and whether they exist. Missing from my comment was the word ‘discuss’. I was hoping to be the equivalent of a naughty boy slipping a rude note under a door in Bloomsbury Square, then looking through the window to enjoy its impact. Bill figuratively opened the door as I was about to escape and I found myself standing, as it were, on an alien carpet with the Woolfs ready to pounce if I couldn’t explain myself. (I should have sidestepped that pun, shouldn’t I?)
Well, the fact is I can’t explain myself. If I were resourced enough I would bring a string of primitive writers to your attention, but my first example, Daisy Ashford and her book The Young Visiters, is hardly meaty enough. But she ticks some of the boxes: she was not following any rules, was surely too young (10) to have studied the art of writing but wrote with supreme, innocent confidence. To cap it all, her books sold. Perhaps this extract explains why:
I shall put some red ruge on my face said Ethel because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house.
You will look very silly said Mr Salteena with a dry laugh.
Well so will you said Ethel in a snappy tone and she ran out of the room with a very superior run throwing out her legs behind and her arms swinging in rithum.
My second witness is John Clare, who is ranked just about as highly as his contemporaries these days but whose roots are far more primitive. Maybe his range wasn’t as great as that of Byron or Shelley but from his beginnings as the son of an agricultural labourer, he wrote stirring romantic poetry (which sold).
WH Davies belongs in this group. Edward Thomas said of him:
“He can write commonplace or inaccurate English, but it is also natural to him to write……with the clearness, compactness and felicity which makes a man think with shame how unworthily, through natural stupidity or uncertainty, he manages his native tongue. In subtlety he abounds, and where else today shall we find simplicity like this?”
But a list like this doesn’t make the point. (And it’s boring). No, I really can’t muster an argument worth mustering, so I’ll think again about my initial remark and why I made it. There’s a bit of me that wants to believe that untutored, instinctive writers occasionally buck the trend and make it through to publishing. So, what I’m really niggling about is the fact that, as in so many spheres, one has to serve a rigorous apprenticeship to make progress as a writer. Ergo, because I am not inclined to work hard at my writing – or much else for that matter – I suppose I found the discussion on rules threatening.
But I also found myself remembering some of the children I’ve taught over the years who showed that they had either been here before or had somehow gathered a sublime instinct about words and how they might be used. And my dilemma was always about how much one could leave them be and how potentially dangerous it was to suggest any frameworks or rules. Maybe, in retirement it’s time I got over, and got on, with it.