Broken Pencil

If you’re one of those strange people who regularly reads my blogs, you might have noticed a drought lately. I originally began writing on Myspace in March 2006, simply with the intent to practice, in readiness for that great novel. Or great travel book: I haven’t decided. As of today, I had written 1138 blogs, or an average of one every 1.28 days. (Tip: you can use a spreadsheet to subtract dates to get the number of days between them.)

But, as I said, after returning from holiday at the start of August, my output has been far lower. I’m not sure if it’s just a typical writer’s dry spell, or if the depression of returning to the grey skies of an Irish “Summer” seriously got to me. I remember one previous blogless period when I was in love and couldn’t concentrate on anything, but that’s not the case now. It’s just a silly phase I’m going through.

I’m one of those lucky people with an instinctive aptitude for the rules of language. I know the difference between “who” and “whom” and I’m not fazed by apostrophes. (And I wince when a writer uses “phased”, in place of “fazed”.) It means that in general, once I know what I want to say, I can write coherent and correct English without much effort. Actually, you might be surprised to learn that much of my career in IT was spent writing English, rather than any computer language, but communicating with humans is an inescapable part of any software project that involves more than one person.

My problem was that after about an hour or so of detailed technical writing, I’d start to put subtle jokes in, or obscure musical references. I know I’ve already done the latter here, but I’m allowed to. It’s a blog. Anyway, I’d have to get up and have a coffee or reconfigure my laptop, or do something else until I could go back to the writing with a serious attitude again. But the point is, that although I knew I could do technical writing, I wasn’t sure if I could entertain or interest the general reader, and therefore hence the blogging.

Another aspect of my working life was the need to stand up on my hind legs and talk at people. I’ve always thought it curious that public speaking was never a fear for me, in spite of my usual shy and introverted personality. While I’m always quiet in social situations, I was able to saunter up onto a stage and talk to hundreds of people without the slightest worry. I flatter myself that I was pretty good at it too, primarily through the application of a few simple rules which you’ll find in any self-help book for the novice speaker.

And the one key rule is not to overestimate how much information you can get across. People’s comprehension and attention span is very, very limited. I know from personal experience that no matter how hard you try to listen and concentrate, there’s a very low threshold where your eyes glaze over and you tune out. I’ve tried to allow for this in the writing too. Keep it simple, stupid: that’s very much the modern style of writing anyway.

stones of VencieThough I’ve just discovered that it wasn’t always like that. I picked up an old second-hand book: volume two of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, a cheap (one shilling) pocket reprint from 1905, although the book was originally published in 1853. And the text is incredibly dense. Ruskin takes no prisoners, with intricate, multi-clause sentences sometimes forming entire paragraphs of themselves; where you have to concentrate hard to follow every twist of the logic and the references cascading from one phrase to another. I find that I can only take in a few pages at a time, which I suppose at least makes my shilling go farther.

Ruskin is probably an extreme case, given that he was very conscious of form and correctness, and was probably deliberately choosing an archaic tone. In fact, a more readable and amiable contemporary writer (who also had the advantage of being American, and thus inherently less po-faced), Henry James, says of The Stones of Venice that it “appears to be addressed to children of tender age. It is pitched in the nursery-key, and might be supposed to emanate from an angry governess.” That’s a joke, of course, but even his own prose makes more demands of the reader than anything published today.

It would be easy to come to the conclusion that we’re stupid now, that the Internet and video games and television (and probably fast food) have eroded our brains and reduced our attention span. In fact, I can’t immediately think of another convincing explanation.

But I think I can at least blame John Ruskin for my temporary writer’s block. The rhythms and convolutions of his tortuous English have infected my brain. When I want to write something, I feel an unconscious urge to emulate his style; but I can’t, and so I write nothing. I’m sure it’s temporary though, and could probably be cured immediately by reading some Douglas Adams.

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