Saturday, February 04, 2006


I can’t do impressions. Nor can I speak in an Australian, Indian, Spanish or any other foreign accent. Where some seem to have a natural talent for changing the inflection in their speech, I find it near impossible. Perhaps a great deal of practice may render an impression or accent passable. I do not believe that I have the natural ability to render, to imitate or to acquiesce. The same goes for drawing, painting, music and a host of other “arts.” I am seemingly incapable of adopting a set “style.” I can’t do it “just like this,” or that.

I read a wide variety of non-fiction. On occasion I’ll read fiction – sometimes under the pretense of non-fiction, but fiction all the same. I prefer, however, reality. I am a reality reader. It is not surprising, therefore, that I write about reality – exclusively. Whether it is opinion, journalism, experience, observation or (forgive me) memoir, it is always and at once about one thing: The truth.

I have been writing on and off for most of my life, usually only when necessary, never really just for the sake of writing. I never much cared for creative writing because the assumption (perhaps only mine) was that it should be fiction. I never heard of creative non-fiction and although I accept the genre today, it still feels a little like an oxymoron. I write from experience; I write what feels right; I write the way I talk and the way I think – when I’m writing.

I don’t have a “style” of writing. Well, if I do, it’s uniquely my own. Perhaps more to the point, I can no more adopt a different style than I can draw a picture of a seascape or speak in a foreign accent. My mind doesn’t work that way, I don’t know why. Philip Larkin, as related by V. A. Naipaul in her essay “On Being a Writer” thought that form and content were indivisible. Naipaul adds:

Literature is not like music; it isn’t for the young; there are no prodigies in writing. The knowledge or experience a writer seeks to transmit is social or sentimental; it takes time, it can take much of a man’s life, to process that experience, to understand what he has been through; and it takes great care and tact, then, for the nature of the experience not to be lost. Not to be diluted by wrong forms. The other man’s forms served the other man’s thoughts.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I also couldn’t have said it the same way even if I wanted to. It says what I think, but not how I think it – or how I would write it. I was not able to express myself via the written or, for that matter, the spoken word as clearly 20 years ago. I did not have a social context in which to frame my thoughts, my words. I did not have the experience, the good, the bad or the ugly. Not surprisingly, I had little desire to write.

I write everything in the same “style.” From research papers to essays to technical manuals or personal letters and email, it’s the same flow. Every college research paper I have ever written came back with remarks such as “interesting style” or “very entertaining” and sometimes “refreshing” – and usually an “A.” One might venture that it is somewhat risky writing such works as near narratives – that I am somehow courageous or bold or… stupid taking such chances. The truth is that I have no choice – it’s how I write, it’s authentic and it’s me.

George Orwell surmises in his 1953 essay “Why I Write” that there are four great motives for writing that exist in differing degrees in every writer and will vary from time to time in any one writer. He lists first sheer egoism and explains “Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.” I don’t know that I want to be grouped with all these professions, but I get what he means.

Although I will begrudgingly concede that ego is an excellent motivator, it is, for me, a secondary force; a background urge that pushes me towards the only perfectionism I have ever known. It is not like me to be persnickety about anything – good enough usually is. But it’s not like that when it comes to my writing. I’m obsessive about getting it just right. It’s not just about correct grammar and spelling, but pulling all the words together into one cohesive unit where every word, every phrase and every comma is indispensable. I don’t always succeed, especially in my own eyes. Recognition that feeds the ego, especially in these moments of self-doubt, keeps me motivated.

Orwell continues; the other three motives are: Esthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. The first, true for me in terms of flow and continuity, is the craft of the wordsmith. The second only drives me in terms of my own history and the last is, for now, my calling. Ultimately, although perhaps not as much currently, egoism directed me to the road I now travel. If it were not for certain individuals taking an interest in what I had to say, professionals with no axe to grind and no reason to be “nice,” my ego would have sent me packing.

Joan Dideon says in her essay (the title of which she freely admits she stole from George Orwell), “Why I Write:”

All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. … Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

Again, although I would not have said it this way, this is also my truth. We have walked the same path. It seemed as if everything I was, I wasn’t. It left me disconnected, discontented and disillusioned. Is this all there is?? There was a tempest spinning out of control in my head and the way to quell it was to write. At first writing alone was not enough. Although it did provide a measure of relief, the big payoff came from recognition.

At the moment, this very moment with these very words, my primary reason for writing is clarification. It seems to me that if I write enough, I’ll get it. I’ll get life. Having said that, the motivation that is my ego has not gone away. First, it won’t let me rest until this is proofed, tweaked and polished. Then… I post it for the world to see. Can I change the world, give it greater and deeper understanding to all who read my prose? That would be nice, but I’d settle if you just liked it!


Ellen said...

You just keep on writing, and I'll keep coming back every day to read.
I enjoy good flow and continuity when reading, and feel you have mastered this process well.

It is quite obvious that you take the time to edit and polish before you publish, and your posts are proof that writing is an mastered talent and not just a whim.

Keep up the good work!

Michael K. Althouse said...

ellen: Thank you. You know, it's funny - that entire essay started out as nothing more than a comment on my my journalism class's blog. It was going to be... no more than 100 or so words (pretty brief for me).

Then it just kept growing. I started at about 11:00 pm, realized it would exceed a mere comment by 11:30 pm (cut and pasted it to MS Word) and was not finish until nearly 3:00 am. I posted at 2:38 am, but caught a few typos and changed a little bit here and there and re-posted four or five times. I can't tell you how many times I've read and re-read it - not sitting back and thinking "this is pretty good," but only that it's ok. And I will rarely ever say anything I write is pretty good.

I will say, however, that's it's me. No one reads my stuff more than me and no one is more critical than me. My style doesn't hasn't really evolved, it's just getting closer and closer to me. It's getting more authentitic.

Thank you again, ellen, for this is one of the reasons I do this...


Ellen said...

I can understand that re-reading, editing, etc process... some days it take me 6 long hours to get something I like well enough to put out. Or I might start it at night, sleep on it, and come back the next day after I've chewed on it for awhile.

We are our harshest critics sometimes, aren't we?

Unknown said...

I, too, have been writing for nearly my entire life. It wasn't until about 5 years ago that the writing started to write itself and it felt less like a chore than a nature part of my being. I used to spend hours trying to think of things to write about and then manipulate the things I once thought in order to make them appeal more interesting to the reader. Now, I just write. I look around me and I find things in my life and history that are more amusing or entertaining than anything I could ever make up. I don't think of my audience when I am writing. My heart and mind just 'connect' and I put the work out there.

I'm currently in the middle of a non-fiction narrative that is already 6 chapters, but since I started my memoirs in December, I've put that on hold.

I love writing.
That's why I do it.


OldLady Of The Hills said...

I LIKE IT! I think you are a supurlative writer and I very much want to read what you have to say...Sometimes I find it 'dense' with words and because my mind works differently than yours I have to go back and re-read to really 'get' what you said...But, it is very satisfying to read what you write and I look forward to reading more...I have been writing since I was a child...I write plays; I write monologues; I write essay's of a sort...etc., etc....I also am a composer and lyricist...all these disciplens are different for different resons, but what they have in common for me is: Writing from a deep truth or conviction or knowledge of-- something...and a NEED to communicate something, weather it be for yourself or just because you need to do it, or needing to tell somone or many someones, "Something" that I feel very very deeply about. You know? And sometimes it is said with humor....and sometimes no humor whatsover.

Incidentally I love Joan Didion's writing. This most recent book is, to me, very profound...
Thanks for opening up this discussion, Mr. Althouse...

neal said...

It is funny, I have always had a knack for picking up foreign languages when I wanted to. I took Spanish in high school and barely squeezed by because all I cared about was getting stoned. I spent 3 years in Spain in the Air Force and by the time I left I had been thinking in Spanish and even people from different regions of Spain would tell me that I was from Zaragoza because of my 'accent'. I also have picked up some Tagalog from my wife and a few phrases in Italian and Korean.

I also love to write but I don't do it nearly as well as some of the stuff I read on blogs, especially yours, Zombie Slayer and I particularly like Zombie Lama's posts. He is a modern day Edgar Allen Poe in my eyes.

You mentioned;

It is not like me to be persnickety about anything – good enough usually is. But it’s not like that when it comes to my writing. I’m obsessive about getting it just right. It’s not just about correct grammar and spelling, but pulling all the words together into one cohesive unit where every word, every phrase and every comma is indispensable.

I have oodles and oodles of stuff saved that I may never post because every time I open it up to work on it I keep making changes and seem to never be happy with it.

My writing is almost like a bonsai tree, it is never done, always changing somehow.

Like Ellen said, you keep writing and I will keep coming. Kinda like Field of Dreams...

Bar L. said...

Well written :)

I know exactly what you mean when you say that you couldn't write another way if you wanted to! I am that way as well. I have my style and permeates any type of writing I do (with the exception of my job which I don't consider writing...just communicating).

This is a must read for all of us writers, I hope you don't mind if I link to this, maybe tomorrow? Its too good not to share because I think many of us can relate. I know I do.

Michael K. Althouse said...


...the writing started to write itself and it felt less like a chore than a natural part of my being...

I totally relate. There is very little difference between my first and final drafts. It just seems to come out the way I mean it.

ooloth: Thank you. I don't find myself (usually) going to the thesarus or dictionary to find just the right word. My vocabulary is not huge, but certainly it's big enough for me to be somewhat wordy. Just think how it must be living up in my head - what I right is a very close approximation.

neal: Thank you - I do not have a great deal of partial work "in process," but what I do (with the exception of my book) will probably remain unfinished. There is always something more current to deal with, I don't feel the need to go back and revisit those unfinished thoughts. Probably better that way.

bar bar a: Well I don't know if I would consider it a "must-read," but thank you. Feel free to post or link to it. As I said, it is my desire to touch my readers and that although recognition is part of the motivation, it is not (at least today) the primary motivator.

Lee Ann said...

I am like you in the fact that my style of writing is my own. I write the way I talk too. I will on occasion write fiction, but I too mostly write real life.

Seems as though we have that in common. ;)

X said...

Mike - I think your writing is excellent. I understand what you mean about writing getting easier with time. I am by no means old, or even in the second half of my life, but I have lived through a lot and can relate to many situations. This allows me to have a clearer, more coherant thought process.

I tend to write how I speak because of that's how I write at work - in a conversational style. This can be good, but also bad. I find it makes my thoughts easier to convey, however it has killed my knowledge of punctution. I am used to pausing for dramatic affect in my writing, so commas pop up where they shouldn't be. Like, right, here ;)

Excellent post! :)

Jamie Dawn said...

My husband tries to do a Simon Cowell impersonation. He does a terrible British accent.
My son is the one who really has a knack for voices, and he remembers all the funny lines from shows & movies.

Each person's writing style is a reflection of them. I enjoy many different styles of writing. I think it feels good to write something and just put it out there into the world. Keep on writing and enjoying it.