A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don’t think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.”
- Zadie Smith, “Fail Better***
Now THAT’S something they don’t teach you in creative writing class. That YOU might have to actually work on YOURSELF instead of your writing…
Style is a trace of the writer’s personality.
And writing with pictures is no different. In fact, I feel that the personality of style is even easier to detect in cartoonists, probably because what you’re seeing in the cartoonist’s art is the actual marks of his or her hand. (Anybody up for some handwriting analysis?) Think of it: R. Crumb. Lynda Barry. James Kochalka. Charles Schulz. Personalities inked all over the page.
This is why I return to people’s writing and writing with pictures: to read what they have to say. To soak up their manner of being in the world. Like Smith, this is also why I write. “When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world.”
But what IS this way of being? What is personality? Smith says it’s much more than autobiographical detail, “it’s our way of processing the world, our way of being, and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities.” It’s about perspective, not autiobiography — not necessarily what you’ve seen, but how you’ve seen it.
It’s also about what we read and what allies we choose to make. “The choices a writer makes within a tradition – preferring Milton to Moliere, caring for Barth over Barthelme – constitute some of the most personal information we can have about him.” It’s about what we weed out of our brains and our souls: “a process of elimination.”
[O]nce you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people’s, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment – once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in – what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language.”
Reading, looking, writing, and drawing–you do it all at the same time, and slowly chisel yourself out of a big block of DNA. You gotta work on YOURSELF, along with your writing. This is something that doesn’t fly in your typical workshop. Craft might not be “the enemy,” as James Kochalka says, but it certainly ain’t the whole picture, either.
[W]riting is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great. This is hard for young writers…to grasp at first. A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere – for convenience’s sake we’ll call it the self, although, in less metaphysically challenged times, the “soul” would have done just as well. In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels. We are repelled by the idea that writing fiction might be, among other things, a question of character. We like to think of fiction as the playground of language, independent of its originator….Though we rarely say it publicly, we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend. It is this intimate side of literary failure that is so interesting; the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private, difficult to express, easy to ridicule, completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars, and yet, despite all this, true.”
Unfortunately, I have no link to the full text of Smith’s article. I was going through my desk at work today and found an old printout of it covered with highlighter from some lunch in the breakroom, and I was about to toss it until I realized the Guardian doesn’t make it available online anymore. It ran in two parts, beginning on Saturday, January 13th, 2007. I remember it making the blog rounds, but somehow, I never commented on it. Link to the article.