Saturday, September 22, 2012

'Lyricism is a function of precision'

Writing is a craft. It is learnt in the way that cabinet making is learnt, or a musical instrument is learnt, which is to say by practice and the often effortful acquisition of technique. Richard Sennett, in his brilliant book on the idea of craft, estimates that it takes 10,000 hours to learn to play the violin well or to make an admirable cabinet. It takes even longer to become a writer, because before you become a writer you must first become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write; this continues to be true throughout a writer's career. Reading bad writers can be as useful as reading good ones. To continue the cabinet-making analogy, reading good writers shows you how to achieve the verbal equivalent of the tongue-and-groove joint, the well-bevelled edge, the countersunk screw, the mahogany inlay or the beeswax polish. Reading bad writers, you see how the chisel can leap and gouge the wood, how joints can be left unflush and how hinges can creak.

You don't have to read within your tradition or form, of course. JG Ballard, for instance, read almost no fiction, preferring what he memorably called the "grey literature" of technical manuals, medical journals and police reports. I like to read as much as I can from the tradition in which I supposedly work. All of the books in my writing room are either travel literature, or nature writing, or a mix of the two. On the lower shelves, within grab-able reach, I've got my favourites: Jonathan Raban, Italo Calvino, Rebecca Solnit, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Hugh Brody, Annie Dillard, John Muir, Gretel Ehrlich, Tim Robinson, JA Baker, Barry Lopez

It's these last two writers who have influenced me more than any others: Baker, author of The Peregrine (1967), and Lopez, whose masterpiece is Arctic Dreams (1984) but whose essay collections Crossing Open Ground and About This Life are also magnificent. In The Peregrine I saw how to describe the rapid actions of nature, and I experienced the power of Baker's metaphors: what an early reviewer called their "magnesium-flare intensity". Lopez's hymn to the Arctic revealed to me the possibility of entwining cultural history, anthropology, travelogue, science and elegy. Lopez also convinced me that lyricism is a function of precision – and that exact and exacting attention to the natural world is a kind of moral gaze.
-- Robert Macfarlane

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