I spent much of yesterday in an online conversation with Dani dissecting what I mean when I say I enjoy the way P.G. Wodehouse plays with language. (You can find the conversation in the comment trail for this post.)
This morning, while I was still thinking about the intentional playfulness with which P.G. Wodehouse twists our perception of cliches, I came across this essay in the New York Times in which Verlyn Klinkenborg argues that experienced writers must carefully consider the literal meaning of their sentences in order to succeed at the craft.
Does the writer know what that sentence actually says? The answer is routinely no. After years of teaching creative writing, I still find this amazing. It means that, despite themselves, writers are often engaged in acts of unwitting self-contradiction.
Imagine how it works. A writer speaks the language, knows the vocabulary, and tries to honor the rules of grammar and syntax. Yet he regularly produces sentences of whose literal meaning he’s completely unaware. In its own way, this is fantastic, like setting out to knit a cardigan, producing an armoire, and wondering why it’s so loose in the shoulders.
Sentences are wily and multifarious, secretive, mischievous. Language is inherently playful, eager to make nonsense and no-sense if it gets out of order. Inexperienced writers tend to trust that sentences will generally turn out all right — or all right enough. Experienced writers know that every good sentence is retrieved by will from the forces of chaos.
So don’t be blinded by what you think you’re saying. The sentence you make won’t give you the benefit of the doubt, even though the reader may. And don’t assume that the literal meaning of a sentence is the least important one. It’s the only important one. Without the accuracy of being literal, there’s nothing to build on. Even metaphors — the best ones anyway — are literal-minded. But that’s a story for another day.
I’m not entirely certain how I feel about this man’s argument. On the one hand, being aware of the literal meaning of what you’re writing will prevent you from making flubs like the poor writer in Klinkenborg’s class who wrote that she kept hiding her father’s thick fingers under various people’s thighs. Presumably that is not what she intended to say.
On the other, too much slavish devotion to the literal meaning of sentences would have made this rather fun bit of prose from Wodehouse impossible:
“[Jeeves] shimmered out, and I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes… Indeed just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head–not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.”
From P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, p. 7
And that would be a shame, because as I said to Dani yesterday, I find Wodehouse’s improbable use of words highly entertaining. “Jeeves shimmered out” — really? How likely is it that a full-grown man could shimmer? Yet, I can see how it might appear that way to a Bernie Wooster in the throes of a rather monstrous hangover.
Can I write like Wodehouse? Of course not. But I confess, I’d still really like to.
Why didn’t the writers catch these mistakes? Probably because they were looking at their intentions — what they meant to say — not the words they put on the page. The sentence, as written, was invisible to them. Readers also fail to catch such mistakes because they’re good at guessing what the writer really means. It’s not that they’re under-reading — skipping past the problem in a sentence. They’re nearly always over-reading, alive to the writer’s intention, as if the writer were somehow immanent in the sentence, looking over the reader’s shoulder, expecting the benefit of the doubt. We do this all the time in conversation. And so the sentence ceases to be a sentence — a verbal construct of a certain length, velocity and rhythm with, at bottom, an unambiguous literal meaning. It becomes a sign instead that telepathic communication is about to commence.
Klinkenborg considers this “telepathic communication” as some sort of flaw. I call it the “magic of reading.”
What do you think?