Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Some Notes on Writing from the Talbot County Free Library
I have spent the better part of my life trying to write compelling, meaningful prose. There have been rewards, but there have also been disappointments. From time to time, inevitably, you encounter subjects and notions that seem to defy description. The English language can be treacherous, its disharmonies and unwished-for associations many, its felicities few. But despite the hazards, every now and then you hit a stretch where the words flow like water. For me, when the writing comes like that, it is better than anything but love. Indeed, it feels a bit like love—an undeserved gift settling over your shoulders like something come down from heaven. A friend of mine once told me she lives for those moments when a line she's written makes the hairs on the back of her own neck stand on end.
I believe that all writers, to one degree or another, live in faith, the belief that no matter how blocked they have become, there is always the possibility that this “gift”—whatever it is—will come to their rescue. But of course you can't rely only on that. You have to work at it too, sometimes beat your head against it. I have spent over half a century now in harness to the craft of writing; out of stubbornness alone I should have learned something: how to turn a corner nicely, plow a row that runs straight and true. There is, for instance, one thing I am certain of, one trick that has always worked for me. In the arts we are told over and over again that practice makes perfect, and there is cause for this. But a great pianist must do more than just play, she must also listen; a great painter must watch; and a great (or even so-so) writer must read, and read constantly.
Inevitably, my writing mirrors my reading. By this I do not mean that when I read Virginia Woolf my writing begins to sound like Woolf's (that, I assure you, is beyond me), but that when I read writers of Woolf's caliber and fluency, my own writing comes easier, as if the reading has pierced the wall that stood between me and what I wished to say. Once that wall is breached, the words seem to flow from me in perfect, orderly sentences that require no correction. I don't have to work at it; it's just there. Not too long ago I hit such a lovely patch and, as often happens (ego being what it is), I found myself congratulating myself on my skill, the level of craft I had attained. Then I remembered the book then sitting on my bedside table.
Truth be told, I had begun reading The God of Small Things in a mood of serious skepticism. Arundhati Roy wrote the novel back in 1997. It was her first book. It won the Man Booker Prize. Let me repeat that. It was her first book. It won the Man Booker Prize. Ostensibly, the Man Booker is awarded annually to the best novel published in English that year, but everyone knows it is really as much a recognition of an artist's body of work as it is an honor given to any single book within that oeuvre. Graham Swift had written five books before he won the Man Booker, Ian McEwan six. That an unknown Indian woman could win what is arguably the most acclaimed prize in English literature the first time out of the gate ... well, I couldn't help thinking political correctness was involved.
Trust me, no male's arrogant presumptions about female ability have ever been brought up short faster than mine were the day I began to read "The God of Small Things." Roy's prose is simple, direct, and full of surprises. Around every corner, she finds an unexpected metaphor to capture perfectly the image seen, the emotion felt, the action portrayed. It has always been my goal to write so that my word choice and sentence structure appear so natural that—from the reader's point of view—they cease to be writing and become, instead, the reader's own thoughts. But Roy goes me one better, her prose becoming not only my thoughts, but thoughts I'd never had before, thoughts I didn't know I was capable of, thoughts that made me feel smarter than I am, more alert, more alive. First time out of the gate, The God of Small Things deserved the Man Booker Prize. Heck, I think it deserved two Man Bookers.
On Monday, January 29, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton branch, and again on Thursday, February 1, at 2:30 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, I will host a discussion of The God of Small Things. I invite you to come tell me what you think of Roy's remarkable creation. Oh, and once you've finished reading the novel, you should try your hand at a little writing—an email maybe, or a long newsy letter to someone you feel you've been neglecting. I think you're going to enjoy the experience.
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