Sunday, October 16, 2011

Building Sentences

I am watching (or attending?) a lecture from the Great Courses called ’The Writer’s Craft – Building Great Sentences.’  It is a DVD of a university lecture from a professor who teaches in an Ohio college. Apparently the professor is well known. He dissects the craft of creating sentences with clinical precision. The act of writing is less like an inspired divine act but a mechanical and unemotional task. It feels like the life of an animated and joyful creature is snuffed out of existence. But it is a necessary but ruthless education that is required of any modern writer. Experience is not a good teacher as one tries to imbibe the nuances of writing by reading. A self-taught writer follows his instincts by trying to grasp the musical flow the come out of the written work, a sort of learning from osmosis by listening or reading the words from the mouth of masters. Attending the lecture is like watching a ruthless pounding by a professional boxer. One wonders if one can survive the seminar with the previous sense of magic and wonder that one gets from ‘pure’ writing.

The lecture is long about 34 lectures at 30 minutes each. I have been trying to complete this course in the past 6-8 months. But I always have something to do like watching movies or reading books. If I do get to watch the lectures, I fall asleep. One could not imagine that the act of writing could be taught in such a deadening manner. But don’t get me wrong. The professor is brilliant and enthusiastic and I have no doubt that he is a good teacher. But his treatment of the subject matter is like shining a bright light in an area that is best left in shadows. It is like Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay on Japan’s rush into the modern age during the Meiji reconstruction. Ancient and mystical Japan is lost forever when one brings the bright lights into the ancient villages and traditions that these old structures have to be destroyed to make way for the new. This is the same way for religion. I noticed that the old Catholic churches are steeped in darkness with light coming from the ancient stained glass windows that inhabit the walls of Gothic and Romantic churches in France.  One feels in awe of the priest saying mass in the darkness of the immense chambers. The Latin chants and incantation contribute to the mystical feeling.

Today’s churches, at least those built without consideration of the mystical experience, are installed with immense chandeliers, thinking that the new pageantry would bring grandeur and awe. But the ancient tradition of religion is lost as a bulwark against devils and demons with mystical ceremonies like exorcisms relegated to the dead past. But that is exactly the point. Like ancient Japan and the Catholic Church, there is no choice but to move forward in progress, throwing all those superstitious nonsense away in place of scientific reasoning. Of course religion means faith with no cold logic around despite claims from erudite Jesuits. Religion declines everywhere and organized religion may soon become an instrument of charity, without the mysticism of the past. It may become one of those impressive multinational organizations straddling the globe like the Bill Gates foundation or the Carter Center or Clinton Global Initiative, where people with noble passions try to improve the world. It’s the road that ancient Japan has taken to emerge into the world stage.

It is the same for writing. There are no longer ‘true’ poets around – those strange mystical creatures who embody divine inspiration and who follow a different drummer. Those poets like Yeats or Dylan Thomas or Lord Byron whose very words are enough to enthrall those who listen. Perhaps in a way, Hemingway still belongs to these group of individuals gifted with a divine touch.  But like the ancient romances of old, these enchanted beings are now swept away with the onrush of technology and bright lights.  So a modern writer attends creative writing courses or lectures like the ‘Building Great Sentences’, working with computers, tape recorders and voice recognition software. Professional writers, who use sophisticated writing tools that advice on plot and character and theme, check their spelling and grammar with built in thesaurus and dictionaries. One need not need experience the poet’s angst or the dalliance with alcohol and other mystical chemicals like mushrooms or nicotine but research the subject via the internet. It is a disorienting experience that one feels as the old ramparts are swept away that one is left struggling to grasp a toe hold that will keep one steady in a moving stream. The answer is to remain childlike and maintain a sense of wonder in the new world. Perhaps that is the role of ‘magical’ technology like the iPad – to maintain a sense of magic in modern life.

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