So I thought about that for a while, because it’s the kind of thing that interests me, and I decided: Nuh. With a capital N. After a colon. And I’m sorry, spellcheck; I’m going with “against use”. I think you want “against the use”. Tough.
When I use “So” to begin a sentence … hang on, let me think of something ... I mean to give a sense of something before the sentence, whether that something is a quarter-hour spent reading the letters page of a magazine, or the breath taken after an absorbing thought process.
Or, y’know, I don’t know why I use “So” to start a sentence. Sometimes, it just feels right. So there. Writing is self-expression, and my self has a “So” in its vocabulary. With a capital S, all ready to pull out first. So … there, or did I say that already?
People my age get really angsty about moments of forgetfulness.
Writing only works if it’s transparent, I once decided. Like the individual brushstrokes in an Old Master painting, the words need to be so well applied that they become incidental to whatever is being expressed. You see the picture not the words.
I went through a phase (I’m still going through a phase) in which I went back and re-read any passage, in anything, that got to me. Went back and really studied the brushstrokes.
And what I found was, it wasn’t just the words. It was everything else as well - the said, the not-said, the style of the writing. The writer’s skill in putting it on the page but also in leaving it to my imagination.
Not the writer’s skill in forming a conventional English sentence. Transparent was what mattered, I decided, not formal precision. Writer speaks to reader.
[At this point, William stops and gazes out of the window. Skip the paragraphs in italic if you don't want the absorbing thought process that comes before the next "So". William pressed "italic" rather than "delete" at the last moment, because he likes these memories. But they really don't fit here.]
Once upon a time, I had a job in which I interviewed people, and I remember realising that silence worked as well as a question. If the interview is going well, don’t ask the next question. Nod, murmur, look expectant - anything but ask a question. Nine times out of ten, the person being interviewed knows what question should come next, and answers it.
You can go back to your prepared questions later.
And I remember an accountant I interviewed once, for something I had to write that was financial and technical and way beyond my competence. I asked him to read through the difficult bit, because I was relying on his explanation and also quoting him, and when he came back to me, he told me that I used too many commas. Oh, yeah, the technical stuff was fine, but … commas.
Really? I could have spoken to him at length about commas, and Oxford commas, and Hart’s Rules, but I would have been making all that up. Commas are useful, like pauses in speech. Full stop.
[Sorry about that. Now back to the blog post.]
So. Yes. And. But. I have my own problems. I kind of notice apostrophes. I like the distinction between “few” and “less”. But I use commas like some people use garlic in their cooking, and I’ve pretty much made up my own rules for semi-colons. Okay, spellcheck, semicolons.
I like hyphens. But my point is: that’s me. I don’t over-fuss (any more). Every now and then, spellcheck gets out the red wiggly line, and I go along with it. Niggly line. Yes, of course I genuinely believe red means serious. What, spelling and grammar? Careful, spellcheck, that’s multi-tasking.
It’s customary at times like this to say something about language evolving, and if we’re really getting defensive-aggressive, to denounce the custodians of proper (sic) usage as “grammar nazis”, or some such expression. I don’t know about that. Language is a tool, and knowing how to use it can be useful. Same goes for chainsaws. But sticking to some rigid set of rules? Like I said: Nuh. Where would we be without all those toadstools carved out of tree-trunks that you see on roadside verges?
Oh, and language belongs to everybody, even people who don’t take very much care with it. [Safety notice: we’re done with the chainsaw analogy.] Not far from here, there’s a “Minor Inijury Unit”. A while ago, I saw a sign directing “Vechicles” around a traffic hazard. People weren’t standing outside wondering if they could bring their injury to the inijury unit, nor was there a huddle of bewildered drivers asking: if the vechicles go that way, where do the vehicles go?
We get by. I think what matters - what really matters - is that the meaning gets across, not that we’re using the correct form. In paint, Mark Rothko found a way to get his meaning across, as did Edward Hopper. You can feel the draining heat in Joan Didion’s Democracy (1984) although it's never exactly described - and while we’re mentioning works of the century before this one, try Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard (1987). Both authors to be read by anybody who wants to write.
I’m currently reading Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party (2010), which suggests that politicians sometimes use speech-writing to work out their ideas. Work them out, not just express them. But I’ve gone off the point.
“So” doesn’t matter. What matters is getting across what you want to get across. Know the rules, but don’t feel constrained by them. And if you’re the kind of nerd who likes to find a subtext in everything, even blog posts - what? “Nerd” isn’t offensive? Surely not? - maybe I could just point out that we’re surrounded by people telling us how to do stuff. That seems to be pretty much the sole purpose of social media these days. In my case, it’s how to do marketing, how to write a novel, a screenplay, a successful sales pitch, and would I like to download a FREE book as a reward for signing up to the mailing list…?
Because so many of these people are teaching, not doing. And what I would say to them is: the way to do - whatever it is, and we’re not just talking about writing now - isn’t to repeat what worked last time. Study the brushstrokes, yes, but you crowd out originality by insisting that you’ve found out the only true way to apply brushstrokes.
You can build a course out of that, and defend your course on the grounds that it’s based on proven techniques, but what the world needs right now is something that can’t be taught.
So if you could stand - yes, right over there. No, further … yes, that’s it. No, you’re not too far away. Hear you? No, but I can lip-read if necessary. Yes, use the screen if it hooks up to your laptop. There’s a flipchart if you want it. No, that’s fine. Sure. Arrange those deckchairs however you want them.
I just want you far enough away that the truly original thinkers, the creative people, can’t hear you telling them that they’re doing it wrong. Let them find their own voices.
So I’m going to leave this space blank and head for the beach. There will be: students gathered around barbecues; young parents with tiny babies seeing the sea for the first time; boys racing each other into the water; paddle-boarders heading for the horizon; bands of older women shrugging themselves into one-piece garments made by sewing towels together to roam the beach picking up plastic; thin, nut-brown old men with long silver hair swimming alone.
And there will be me. Staying afloat. Possibly even waving.