Where I live, I am fortunate to be in a reading group, and the pieces chosen by my fellow readers have introduced me to all kinds of authors I had not previously thought of engaging with. The latest of these was the contemporary American writer Wendell Berry, and the piece chosen was his essay A Native Hill.
One of the principles of our group is 'close reading'. This means we allow ourselves the luxury of reflecting together on the quality of the author's language. Berry's writing is both elegant and eloquent. By reading and re-reading writing like this, I hope that something of its quality will seep into my own prose. We'll have to see...
Berry's essay begins with him pondering his close connection to the part of Kentucky he came from and returned to after many years in California, Europe and New York. He takes us on a stroll along the paths around his home, sharing his observations about rivers, streams, trees, fences, walls, roads, topsoil and litter. But A Native Hill is so much more than a description of a landscape. It is an inspiring meditation on how to live well in our busy, destructive human world.
At one point, he remarks: "It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history ... I am forever being crept up on by the realisation that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth...".
I have long felt that cars and roads have made our world uglier and dirtier, so when I read Berry's perceptive thoughts on the difference between a road and a path, my heart started racing : “A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.” “A road", he goes on to say, "even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.” These words felt like a delicacy that I wanted to savour as slowly as possible to make it last longer.
Though I loved the essay, the opening pages of the essay had left me feeling impatient. What finally hooked me were the following words on the third page: “I have pondered a great deal over a conversation I took part in a number of years ago in one of the offices of New York University”. From that moment, I couldn't wait to be told the rest of the story. Some years earlier, a senior member of Berry's university had tried to persuade him to stay in New York ‘for his own good’. But he had already made up his mind, after much agonising, to take up a teaching job at the University of Kentucky. Nevertheless, the conversation stayed with him for years and prompted him to reflect on the assumptions of the 'urban intellectual'.
I myself have chosen to spend most of my year in a city, but Berry's words left me respecting his decision to go back to the land - and the quality of his writing. By the time I finished A Native Hill, it had become clear to me that the leisurely opening was there to set the tempo for what was to come – mirroring the languid pace of nature, of the woods, and of the soil.
This morning, once I was showered and dressed, I made a cup of my favourite tea (an Oolong from Vietnam) and took it onto the balcony outside my study. Relaxing into a lounger, my face warmed by the winter sun, I allowed myself to become aware of my body, hear the urban sounds coming from the street, and noticed the thoughts floating into my mind, before letting them go.
This has become a bit of a habit lately. I do it before I switch on my computer. And, if the sun isn’t shining, I just sit quietly on the sofa in my study instead. Only after this ritual do I get out my pen and paper (yes) and start writing.
I know I'm not the only one to practise sitting quietly. Meditators do it, and Quakers do it, each for their own reasons. A couple of years ago I came across a nice phrase: ‘sit spot’, meaning a place where you go regularly to sit and do nothing, just be calm, at approximately the same time each day.
But sitting-quietly-before-writing goes one step further. It's not only calming. It also helps me find out what interests me most on this particular day. That then guides my writing, which in turn allows me to get clearer about what I love writing about, and what might then become a lively read.
When writing, you need an outline or table of contents – right? Only partly. Here’s another view, from one of my favourite books, Several short sentences about writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg:
“[Outlining] prevents discovery within the act of writing .... It overemphasises logic and chronology, because they offer apparently ‘natural’ structures.”
These statements have had quite an influence on me lately. When I get to my desk in the morning, I nearly always start with a spell of freewriting (some call it automatic writing), using a fountain pen and sensuous letter paper that allows the ink flow more smoothly. My starting point is usually something that has struck me recently – often a conversation from the day before, or something I have encountered in my morning reading. Then I write down whatever relevant thoughts come to mind. This activity always frees up unexpected associations – memories, insights, experiences. They seem to float in from my peripheral vision.
And yet... from time to time I do feel a desire to formulate an outline. Seeing the major headings on the page helps me as writer to step back from the detail and glimpse the wider picture and to ponder what order will work best for readers. It crystallises the shape of the book and sets boundaries – I'm not a musician myself but I understand a framework can make improvisation easier.
The chapter headings are not slabs of concrete or stone. They are more like a menu with a few enticing dishes on it. A menu offering a thousand items would be almost impossible to navigate.
I have created many outlines over time, and each one seems better than the last. But it is always replaced by another.
Recently I looked at my latest attempt and noticed it had grown too unwieldy, with about 17 headings, so I grouped them and ended up with just 7 headings. Imagining myself as a reader, I found this much more appetising and far easier to take in than the longer version. And with my author's hat on, it even looks like something I might enjoy writing, though I know it will morph again.
The crucial thing for all writers is to continue writing notes or sentences every day is possible. This reveals what really interests us, and eventually there might be enough good material for a book that others will enjoy reading. As Klinkenborg wrote:
“You’ll never know what you think until you escape your outline.”
If you want to excel at writing, the consensus is that it’s crucial to read a lot. Over my lifetime, I haven’t read as much literature as I would have liked. This is mainly because I worked in various research jobs at the beginning of my career. By the time evening came, I felt saturated and had neither the appetite nor the stamina to read another word.
A couple of years ago I made up my mind to catch up with my reading. But rather than enrolling in a course in literature, I decided to be my own university. I just started reading books that had escaped my younger self – by Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, Wharton, Goethe, Gaskell, and plenty of contemporary authors too.
Not only has this tardy spurt of reading given me a sense of the wonderful variety of narrative forms; it has also heightened my feeling for the beauty and wisdom in the words of great writers. I hope that some of these qualities will rub off on me. Meanwhile, the reading is certainly deepening my understanding of human relationships.