Monday Motivation: In the beginning…

 In Monday Motivation

Annie Dillard in her book on what it takes to be a writer, The Writing Life, recounts the story of a fellow writer who was asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?” The response was: “Do you like sentences?”

It’s a telling point, and it gets to the heart of where stories  – and perhaps, more significantly, the impulse to write them – begin.

The grain of a sentence, the sparkle of a word – this is where our love of writing starts. This is where we start our journey.

So if you’re inspired to write the Great South African (or American, or Australian or…) Book, pause a moment before you begin and ask yourself the more fundamental question: Do I love the sometimes gnarly, sometimes sinuous feel of words? Do I love the way in which alliteration creates memorable phrases? Do I just swoon when I read a sentence that creates, in sound and rhythm, the sense the writer was seeking? A sentence like this one, from Michael Chabon‘s The Wonder Boys: “The wind snapped at the flaps of my jacket and rang in my ears like blood.” The images Chabon employs are striking, but it’s the assonance of snapped and flaps and jacket and rang that make the sentence truly remarkable.

The love of words and sentences precedes the desire to weave them into a tapestry. The love of detail – Yeats’s “rag-and-bone shop of the heart” – trumps the desire to manipulate these details into a sweeping narrative.

When writers – even the best of them – find themselves impelled to write stories at whose hearts lies a pedagogical imperative, then the story will misfire, because theme has trumped story.

You have only to think of how Jonathan Franzen – whose The Corrections and Purity I loved dearly – mis-stepped in Freedom, which he wrote, in part, to flog his deeply held convictions about conservation. Despite its many felicities, the novel is deeply flawed, and nowhere more so than where Franzen doggedly beats his pedagogical drum.

Or ponder Solar, a novel by the usually utterly reliable Ian McEwan. There’s no question, the novel has many virtues – but again, at its heart, lies a long, long speech delivered by its protagonist, on the threat of global warming. Ho hum. Pardon me, Mr McEwan, but your private passions (however much I share them – that’s not the point at all) are a little too on display.

Consider. You decide to write a grand account of a country’s plunge into deviltry and moral depravity. Chances are you’ll be tempted to start with an omniscient,  abstract analysis. “In 2017, South Africa stood on the lip of the abyss: behind, the forces of corruption of venality, ahead, the… blah blah blah.”

Better to begin with something as banal and specific as… the discovery of a theft.

Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers – not a novel, but written with all the verve and immediacy of a novel – begins like this:

“On Sunday night, 27 August 2017, my laptop and cellphone were stolen from my office at our restaurant and guesthouse in Riebeek-Kasteel in the Western Cape. Despondency and dread engulfed me when I walked into the room and was confronted by a computer cable and nothing more. A small window bordering Van Riebeek Street stood open.”

And so we are plunged into his narrative which in due course reveals more deviltry and depravity in high places than the citizens of any country can ever possibly have deserved.

But in the beginning, let us remind ourselves, was the word – and the word was beloved, and flourished and in time grew into a mighty tree of narrative that in the end brought down the princes of immorality.

Well, I suppose that the oldest verities hold sway: if words were horses, beggars would ride.

Relatively happy writing,



For more writing tips and a little motivation click here to read Jo-Anne’s Writing Secrets: Fiction makes us better human beings

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  • Susan

    I always enjoyed reading Barry Ronge’s column years ago in the Sunday Times because of the way he used words. It didn’t always matter what he said, the joy was in the way he said it.

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