Saturday, 27 November 2010

Guest blog - in which brother Ron considers possible candidates for the role of 'primitive writer'.

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.


  1. Thanks, Ron - as stimulating and thought-provoking as ever. I'm in two minds about letting you get away with your claims of idleness - this is my blog and I've already made it clear that that's my default position. But maybe it's a family thing, so we'll sloth about together.

    I love the Daisy Ashford quote. I also love your remarks on her and your pupils and their 'sublime instinct about words' (great phrase). You're actually articulating something that I often ask myself or others in workshops, i.e. does education steal our voices? Does it, by stuffing us with 'rules', inhibit natural expression and tend to turn us into clones? Thinking of our own background, has climbing 'up' into the middle classes and acquiring a 'posh' vocabulary stolen some of our vitality, some of the reality of our roots? It's a big question, and it's at the heart of your musings on 'primitive writing'.

  2. I know woman who has hit the NYT bestseller list with her suspense novels but few people know that she sold her very first book while in college. Yes, it was a romance. Yes, she was incredibly talented even then.

    On the other hand, I also believe that we adults often beat the creativity out of children by attempting to instill political correctness in them at a young age. I wonder how much of our writer's voices get beaten out of us along the way to "success" and publication...

    Ditto for others in the creative arts.

  3. I grew up in a world rigidly structured, stiff, pendantic, unforgiving of error, precise, rule-bound: parochial school in rural New Jersey in the late 50's. A system under the hegemony of Sister Agnes of Misery and Wooden Rulers. And within that structure a love of language blossomed. We studied Latin, not just the liturgy, but secular works as well. I learned to parse and train my eye and ear to the rhythms of words, singly and in groups. I learned the rules, and then I learned how to break them. The rules taught me that every word had worth and a place, a function, and that economy was good but flights of fancy could be even better. I learned that words had meanings and roots, that language is the most fundamental historical document of the human race. I learned that words could cry and grieve and giggle uncontrollably. I learned that words have secrets.

    As a former educator, I learned about the history and theories prevalent over the ages - much of it quite similar in its outlines to my own background. We claim that current practices stifle creativity, yet we graduate young adults who can neither read nor write, who are not only ignorant of the rules but are ignorant of the most fundamental modes of communication. We allow a slide into unintellible patois that changes with the vagaries of the wind, ungrounded, raw ... but creative? Debatable.

    We proclaim all to be of equal worth and deny our children the ability to judge value. We preach self-actualization yet we forget to teach youngsters how to select, analyze and apply what they've learned.

    We have forgotten to show our children that words are magic ... and that all magic has rules.

  4. Strange, I find that I agree with all your points Diane and yet, having gone through the same sort of system you describe, I still pose (with Linda) the question about whether education stole my voice. It gave me rules, it extended my vocabulary well beyond the everyday one I used but, in the process, it changed me, altered my perceptions so that I saw the world differently and therefore lost some of the primitive parts of my energy. I know it gave me an awful lot, but I know writers who've had only a sketchy formal education and whose work is powerful because of the rawness and freshness of their prose. I don't think the question has an answer.

  5. Here's the thing: 'life' *is* education. In the process of learning language, we absorb all its intrinsic rules. In addition, we learn social and cultural mores - I doubt I need to recite the litany of ways by which we, as social beings, are acculturated, socialized, tamed if you will. The rules are there. They simply are. They may vary from one culture to another but that cannot dispell the fundamental fact that we all abide by rules of one sort or another.

    That said, we can now move on to the more interesting question: are the rules sufficient to allow creativity? I think the answer is obvious. We need only look at our literary history, even a cursory examination will do. We stand on the shoulders of giants, lierary and otherwise, all who came through 'the system' - Jefferson, Adams, Twain, Williams, Mamet [fill in the blank with your own heroes, political thinkers and fiction writers alike].

    Are we confusing 'rules' with 'formula'? In this day and age, I strongly suspect it is the 'formula' and the 'gatekeepers' rather than the intrinsic rules of language or our educational system (the old style one designed to impart said rules) which are at fault. Are we barking up the wrong tree?

    Let's look at some of that 'raw' material. If you analyze it dispassionately, you will find that it has [gasp] rules! Because if it didn't, it would be unintellible gibberish. That we find it raw and creative and brash and titillating (primitive) can be only because we had a template against which to compare that 'rawness'.

    I've skirted about the issue of our educational system, which here in the US is failing miserably. The 'no child left behind' has morphed into 'every child left behind'. We no longer educate our children. We 'manage' them. We offer them a cafeteria menu and hope they choose wisely, sans guidance, sans responsibility. We espose 'freedom' and never explain what that is. We refuse to pass judgment and so deny our children the means by which to choose rationally. We place before them a cornucopia of the good, the bad and the ugly and wonder at the Columbines that occur with increasing frequency.

    We face a lost generation, one without a sense of personal responsibility. One can't even call it 'moral turpitude' for that presupposes that our children have had the rudiments, the perceptions, the RULES firmly imbedded - that the rules were known, then eschewed.

    Oh dearie me, off on a rant.

    I think the question does have an answer. Cream rises. Whether through a rigid network or through monstrous gaps in a sieve, creativity will flourish. We see it everyday on the internet.

  6. I could really use an edit function on the doggone blogs. Let's make that 'unintelligible'.

  7. Maybe I muddied the waters when I spoke directly of ‘education’ without qualifying it as the formal education whose topics and parameters are laid down by administrators, bureaucrats and the like – in other words, as you say, formulae rather than rules. When the impulse is not to ‘educate’ but to make people conform, it has a repressive effect, stifling individuality, uniqueness, the unforeseen. I know and accept completely that 'life' *is* education and that there are explicit, shared social and cultural norms without which society would begin to unravel. The situation you describe – your ‘lost generation’ – is just as evident in the UK, and it’s madness to assume they can generate their own morality without some sort of guidance and without acknowledging that a healthy society demands respect for the rights and opinions of others, and therefore, respect for its ‘rules’. Remember the words of the one-time Education Secretary and arch-destroyer of all values, Margaret Thatcher: 'There is no such thing as society'.

    As Kris Kristofferson’s great lyric has it ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’.