Writing Right with Dmitri: Invitation to Read

1 Conversation

Writing Right with Dmitri: Invitation to Read

Editor at work.

Elsewhere in this issue, you're going to see some 'stream of consciousness' writing. I've excerpted it from the oeuvre of one Dorothy M Richardson, a member of the Bloomsbury Group. In other words, this writing – which I make mock of, which I think is a perfectly awful example of terrible writing – comes with a certificate of respectability. Richardson had famous friends, like HG Wells. Her husband is well thought-of in art circles, however much we may consider him to have been beyond eccentric, with his hair headband and uncut fingernails. So taking potshots at Dorothy M Richardson's writing is fair game. It's not like picking on student work.

The problem with Richardson's writing isn't that it isn't good prose. Her descriptions are very vivid. Read that excerpt: if you're British, or you were ever in Britain before the 1980s, I'll bet you've been in that boardinghouse. I'll bet her descriptions put you right there. That's not the problem. It's that she refuses to stop. On and on and on she goes, for page after horrible page, relentlessly describing things, till you beg for the merciful release of death. In the meantime, there's no story. Nothing at all to pay attention to or mull over. Just an endless barrage of descriptive paragraphs. Richardson's world is like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, California: there's no there, there.

What I come across as I research writing samples from different eras and movements, over and over again, is that books that work have a lot in common. So do books that don't work. It doesn't really matter if it's the 18th, 19th, 20th or 21st Century. It doesn't matter if the writer is male or female, a member of the socioeconomic elite or a trades unionist, whether the work is written in time of peace or war, whether the author is philosophically inclined or spontaneous and carefree, or whether they believe in God, space aliens, or the Flat Earth Theory.

A good book communicates, and a bad book doesn't. It's that simple. And it's a matter of attitude.

At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go up to bed, and to lie there, unsleeping, far from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centred. Some one had had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come: in the manner of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window. But my sorrows were only increased, because this change of lighting destroyed, as nothing else could have done, the customary impression I had formed of my room, thanks to which the room itself, but for the torture of having to go to bed in it, had become quite endurable. For now I no longer recognised it, and I became uneasy, as though I were in a room in some hotel or furnished lodging, in a place where I had just arrived, by train, for the first time.


And, indeed, I found plenty of charm in these bright projections, which seemed to have come straight out of a Merovingian past, and to shed around me the reflections of such ancient history. But I cannot express the discomfort I felt at such an intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality until I thought no more of the room than of myself. The anaesthetic effect of custom being destroyed, I would begin to think and to feel very melancholy things. The door-handle of my room, which was different to me from all the other doorhandles in the world, inasmuch as it seemed to open of its own accord and without my having to turn it, so unconscious had its manipulation become; lo and behold, it was now an astral body for Golo. And as soon as the dinner-bell rang I would run down to the dining-room, where the big hanging lamp, ignorant of Golo and Bluebeard but well acquainted with my family and the dish of stewed beef, shed the same light as on every other evening; and I would fall into the arms of my mother, whom the misfortunes of Geneviève de Brabant had made all the dearer to me, just as the crimes of Golo had driven me to a more than ordinarily scrupulous examination of my own conscience.

Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

Besides making it clear to you why you've never read Proust, what does this tell you?

Like every other sentence, paragraph, or page of A la recherche du temps perdu, this passage is about Marcel Proust. He's his own favourite subject – his only subject. The minute examination of what it's like to be Marcel Proust is the subject of the gentleman's considerable output. There are people who pretend to find this endlessly fascinating. In my humble opinion, they are liars. They have weaponised these books, and use them for an elaborate game that is every bit as boring and snobbish as Mornington Crescent. It's 'guess what Proust said about….'

Okay, you say, but we're supposed to write about ourselves and our own experiences? What's wrong with that? Well, you tell me. What's wrong with those paragraphs? Why don't you like them? Is it because you're not feeling included in the game? Do you feel no invitation has been extended to you? Are you feeling steamrollered by the guy who seems determined to drone on and on and bleepin' on about his insomnia? I do. I want to punch him. Instead, I just stop reading.

I'm not saying your writing can't be experimental. Or even self-referential, if you do it right. Try this on for size:

First Mrs. Parker would show you the double parlours. You would not dare to interrupt her description of their advantages and of the merits of the gentleman who had occupied them for eight years. Then you would manage to stammer forth the confession that you were neither a doctor nor a dentist. Mrs. Parker's manner of receiving the admission was such that you could never afterward entertain the same feeling toward your parents, who had neglected to train you up in one of the professions that fitted Mrs. Parker's parlours.

Next you ascended one flight of stairs and looked at the second-floor-back at $8. Convinced by her second-floor manner that it was worth the $12 that Mr. Toosenberry always paid for it until he left to take charge of his brother's orange plantation in Florida near Palm Beach, where Mrs. McIntyre always spent the winters that had the double front room with private bath, you managed to babble that you wanted something still cheaper.

If you survived Mrs. Parker's scorn, you were taken to look at Mr. Skidder's large hall room on the third floor. Mr. Skidder's room was not vacant. He wrote plays and smoked cigarettes in it all day long. But every room-hunter was made to visit his room to admire the lambrequins. After each visit, Mr. Skidder, from the fright caused by possible eviction, would pay something on his rent.

Then – oh, then – if you still stood on one foot, with your hot hand clutching the three moist dollars in your pocket, and hoarsely proclaimed your hideous and culpable poverty, nevermore would Mrs. Parker be cicerone of yours. She would honk loudly the word "Clara," she would show you her back, and march downstairs. Then Clara, the coloured maid, would escort you up the carpeted ladder that served for the fourth flight, and show you the Skylight Room. It occupied 7×8 feet of floor space at the middle of the hall. On each side of it was a dark lumber closet or storeroom.

In it was an iron cot, a washstand and a chair. A shelf was the dresser. Its four bare walls seemed to close in upon you like the sides of a coffin. Your hand crept to your throat, you gasped, you looked up as from a well – and breathed once more. Through the glass of the little skylight you saw a square of blue infinity.

"Two dollars, suh," Clara would say in her half-contemptuous, half-Tuskegeenial tones.

O Henry, 'The Skylight Room'

This story is yet another description of a room, for heaven's sake. It's an even shabbier room than the one Dorothy Richardson described. But somehow, unlike that lady's writing, we want to read this. Why?

One reason, of course, is the author's name. We know darn well Mr Porter won't leave us hanging. There will be a real story coming along in a minute. It will have a plot. It will be interesting. But more than that, this description is promising. It engages you. It lets you in on the socioeconomic realities of 1890s New York, sure, but not in a condescending way. It connects the rooms with people. It invites you to take a good look at them, see what you think. It assumes that you, the reader, are there, and that you care about something. You're not just an accidental adjunct to the proceedings, present to applaud the writer's genius.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between good and bad writing, no matter what kind of price tag people put on literature. If you're inviting the reader in, you're halfway home. Now, just tell the story. Make the reader feel included. Give them reasons to care. Go read the rest of that O Henry story. It's a trifle of a thing – he probably dashed it off to pay a bill. But notice how absurdly pleased you are with the outcome of the story. It's as if you'd done something yourself.

And you know what? You had. You read the story. You passed private judgement on the characters in it: the silly, pretentious landlady, the creepy male boarders, and the self-absorbed women boarders. You noted the themes of O Henry's New York stories: the loneliness of Industrial Age cities, the dangers of becoming anonymous, the way young people use imagination, optimism, and romantic ideas to defend themselves against the monolithic threat of the city. You did a lot of work. You deserve the satisfaction of the payoff. Nothing wrong with that.

Now, go and remember to write like that. People will reward you with their attention.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

14.05.18 Front Page

Back Issue Page

Bookmark on your Personal Space



Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry


h2g2 Entries

External Links

Not Panicking Ltd is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more