Thursday, July 19, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Seven

“How I Write,” pages 210-214

When young, Russell loosely modeled his writing after that of John Stuart Mill, but with the additional goal of a sort of efficiency, the use of the minimum number of words consistent with clarity. At the age of twenty-one, Russell fell under the influence of Logan Pearsall Smith (who, like Mill, was (later) a relative of sorts). Pearsall Smith venerated style over substance, and invoked odd rules such as prodigious comma use and employing the word “and” only at the start of a sentence. Pearsall Smith also emphasized one more commonplace piece of wisdom, that of improving writing via rewriting. Russell’s attempts to abide by the rewriting precept (for style, not substance) brought a perverse result, weaker second drafts. But the experiment gave Russell the evidence he needed to save time in the future by eschewing rewriting.

Russell used to suffer from anxiety when contemplating a serious piece of writing, and he would make many frustrating, false starts. He overcame this problem by first thinking about a problem, sorting it out – and then taking time off: “…I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was if anything impeded by deliberate thinking [p. 211].” Generally his subconscious would produce resolutions of the problems that remained, and the book would quickly appear, Athena-like. This process played out for his 1914 lectures and book Our Knowledge of the External World, where the resolution only coalesced in the moment he began to dictate, seamlessly, the material to a stenographer. [Russell also described his practice of waiting and letting inspiration come of its own accord in Chapter 5 of The Conquest of Happiness.] Though the resulting work was far from perfect, it would not have been improved at the time by further effort at composition.

Russell went through a more florid phase in his writing, associated with the time of producing "A Free Man’s Worship," “a work of which I do not now think well [p. 212].” The intentional imitation of Milton at that time was a mistake, as is all effort at imitation. Russell repeats his point from the previous chapter, that successful style involves a personal element that conscious imitation undermines. But reading good writers, without imitating them, can lend pleasing rhythm to prose.

Russell offers a few pieces of advice for writers: Prefer short words to long words; avoid run-on sentences; and, don’t use scientific-sounding terminology that muddles what it should clarify. Or rather, if you are a professor, go ahead and employ academic parlance for your first publication. You then will have established your bona fides, like Russell did, and henceforth you will have license to write in an understandable manner.

No comments: