What influenced your writing? I mean, really influenced it?
I’m not talking here about the writers that helped to shape your prose. That’s an easy enough list to rattle off. Mine would put these folks into pole position: Evelyn Waugh, Max Beerbohm, Muriel Spark, P.G. Wodehouse, Richmal Crompton – even the artist J.A.M. Whistler (really – The Gentle Art of Making Enemies is a prose masterpiece).
And whilst all of these writers played a hand in giving me a sort of slangy, easy-listening prose style, there’s one influence that’s been far greater than all of them.
Let me explain what I mean. When I say that music is the biggest influence on my writing, I don’t mean that I try to churn out contrapuntal sentences, or create fugues out of advertising copy. And I don’t mean that I mimic musical structures – I’m not the sort of person who aspires to write a novel in four movements.
No: I just like my sentences to have rhythm. It might not be your rhythm, and it may even jar on you – but as long as my prose is easy on my inner ear, then whatever else I do with it is just tinkering.
That’s the tricky question.
At a simple level, I love music. I’ve taken pleasure in it since I was very young, precociously saving up my pocket money to buy classical recordings on cheap cassettes.
I also love the way that music can be concise, built on a simple and solid structure, and yet achieve a nerve crackling height of expression. Lots of writers – self included – could learn from that.
But more practically, it’s the musicality of words that first helped me to learn and love them. Let me explain.
It’s the way I learn
I’ve got a bit of confession to make: I rarely give the ‘rules’ of language a passing thought.
They tried to drill them into me when I was at school, particularly when I trapped in double Latin. It was hopeless. Rote-learning conjugations and declensions kills classical language stone dead for me. And when that happens, I can’t be arsed to listen or understand what’s being said about perfects, pluperfects, accusatives or superlatives (for years I thought the woman was talking about ‘superbatives’). Little wonder I never once took pleasure in crafting a Latin sentence.
But if you show me a bit of dodgy English prose, I can show you exactly what’s wrong with it. I know because it not only looks wrong, but it sounds wrong. And once I spot that, then I can put it right. What’s more, I’ll do it instinctively, without conscious reference to the rules of grammar and the like, which I did reluctantly teach myself after I left school.
Does good grammar mean good prose?
Unsurprisingly, the kind of writing I hate the most is cuffed onto paper by people who take the opposite approach to mine. These are writers who, when at school, probably had a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage hammered up their backside by a child-hating English teacher.
Their prose is prose that delights in mechanics and moral righteousness. It is often littered with semicolons; a snobbish sign, simply, that the writer knows how to use them; and sentences will often start somewhere in Lincolnshire before, slowly, inexorably, crossing the border into Rutland and terminating somewhere in the middle of Northamptonshire. It’s a bit like reading Ruskin without the insight, or Thomas Carlyle without the humour.
But it’s accurate. And it never contains sentences that begin with ‘but’ or ‘and’. So, in the eyes of its author, it’s ‘good’ writing.
Despite the fact that it’s dull and it sounds shit.
Tra la la. Accuracy can be musical.
The dullards are missing a trick, though. Because, surely, even the most stately and accurate prose can be distinguished by its inner music?
Let’s go back to one of those writers I mentioned at the outset – Max Beerbohm. To say that Max’s prose was shaped by Latin and Greek would be the understatement of the millennium. He was also man who used the iron fist in the iron glove when his publishers tinkered with so much as a comma of what he had written.
But, for all its classicism and accuracy, Beerbohm’s prose was musical. Flipping open a few books at random to select a couple of opening passages:
That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line. (Zuleika Dobson)
So far as I can, I avoid that channel of all that is unloveliest in London, the Strand. Some folk profess a charm in it. Me it has repelled always. Was ever anywhere so monotonous a current of harsh faces as flows there? (Pretending)
Bringing it all together
I want to get better at it, but I like the way I write. I listen to my prose as well as look at it, and I’m sure there’s music at its heart. I’m also sure that it would be flatter and duller if I obsessed about whether my sentences adhered to some revered grammatical ideal.
Which brings me to the rub. We’re often told that we should only fool around with language and break the rules once we actually know what they are. I think that’s nonsense: the best way to learn about language is to play with it. You can worry about the formalities later. And if you then want your prose to sing with grammatical accuracy, then’s the time to start finding ways of doing it.
Oddly enough, it’s the same with music. Let’s end with this spark of wisdom from pianist Glenn Gould:
So you want to write a fugue?
You’ve got the urge to write a fugue,
You’ve got the nerve to write a fugue,
So go ahead and write a fugue that we can sing!
Pay no heed to what we’ve told you,
Give no mind to what we’ve told you,
Just forget all that we’ve told you,
And the theory that you’ve read.
For the only way to write one,
Is just to plunge right in and write one.
So just forget the rules and write one,
Have a try, yes, try to write a fugue.
So just ignore the rules and try,
And the fun of it will get you,
And the joy of it will fetch you,
It’s pleasure that is bound to satisfy.
So why not have a try?
You’ll decide that John Sebastian,
Must have been a very personable guy.
Now forget all that I’ve told you, and go and fool about with some words of your own. I’d be much obliged if you popped them in the comments box below.