An Invention of Rhetoric

Casting about on the internet for a topic, I came up empty handed this morning. As I was walking around my desk for a cup of coffee to clear the cobwebs and perhaps jog the recalcitrant brain into action, I stopped to look at one of my bookshelves for a moment.

My library is currently somewhat incoherent, reflecting the state of my own mind. It is at least entirely out of boxes – the books, to say nothing of my thought patterns – but willy-nilly there are volumes of folklore next to the Complete Guide to Sewing which in turn jostles The 5e Players Handbook, Mosses Liverworts and Hornworts, and the A-Z of Natural Cosmetic Formulas. Surely, in the masses of pages on this single shelving unit, I could find something relevant to writing and writers. Besides the obvious bibliophilic affection for information, that is.

As it happens, a few of the antique textbooks I still retain of my collection were on that shelf, and this one called to me. Despite having taken college-level composition, you’ll have noted my style in blogging is much more casual than the highly formulaic title-outline-revised structure of the rhetoric taught these days.

While the construction of ‘tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, and then tell them what you just said’ perhaps makes sense when delivering a completely new bolus of information to an unknowing audience of uncertain literacy, I suspect this audience would find it unappetizing, perhaps even insulting. Besides which, as much as I feel passionately about the role of giving back to the writing community through my participation here at the Mad Genius Club, I don’t have the time to spare for a full formal essay construction every week. As you might have guessed already from the topic and it’s introduction.

“Composition must begin with ideas” is the core of what I wanted to convey, using the photos of an aged book (there are no filters applied, the pages really are yellowed and brittle) and the conceit of composing about composition. I prefer the “freshness, independence, naturalness, ease” of the posts I write here, for an audience where I have an advantage his college students would never have dreamed of. I have a comment section. I can get immediate and useful feedback, criticism, or ideas for next week’s essay elaborating on the collaborative thoughts of another writer as well as my own. It’s as fresh as it gets, in real time. In the time of the book, there could be – and were! – back and forth letters. Sometimes privately, sometimes publicly in newsprint. To the amusement and edification of the readers when the latter was pursued like a lively literary ping-pong game.

I am relieved at this declaration of “to get it said well is secondary” because it removes the onus of perfection from my shoulders. I have noted, over the past decade and some of involvement in the writing world, that perfection is truly the enemy of completion. There are many writers, I dare say, who will never be authors, in their pointless pursuit of perfection. Is it clear? In fiction, does it hold the attention? Now, more than ever, we cannot abide stories that leave the reader bored and aimless. You will lose your reader, if you fall into that trap. Note that perfect is nowhere on the scope of any of us Mad ones. Get it done. Publish. Move on to the next thing. Note that I am not saying you should never improve, polish, or learn your craft. I am definitely and firmly telling you that if you do not continue to find new projects, finish them, and then start inventing all over, you cannot grow as an author, much less a writer.

It is not easy to write succinctly and with great clarity. It is easier by far to ramble on and on, circling around the topic, touching it and then running away like a child playing a game of tag. It is also not easy, as he points out, to write up instructions “with immediate intelligibility” on how to replicate some action or feat. It is even more so with something as intangible as fiction. I would argue that with fiction, it may be improbable* to learn how to write fiction from any other means than reading fiction.

The exemplar composition on the life of Samuel Johnson caught my eye. Here, the description of that renowned writer (now, sadly, forgotten and poorly understood due to the shifting of the very language he partly created) and his childhood resonated with my own. It is also a very good syllabus for the fiction writer who would be an author: “Dipped into a multitude of books, read what was interesting, and passed over what was dull.” The use of non-fiction to attempt to teach fiction becomes Schrodinger’s lesson. Alive, until removed from it’s context and attempted to use, then dead.

What, then, can rhetoric teach the fiction author? Ideas are the spark of every book. Cast far and wide for those ideas. Write clearly, and when you don’t know how to express what you desire to convey, read. Read and note what is boring, what thrills you, what repulses you, and so on and on. Word choice should always be secondary to the construction of the idea, the plot, and the characters. It is, to look around me at the season, the cranberry sauce providing tart counterpoint to the richness of gravy. Or the tinsel on the dark green tree, illuminating it with tiny sparks of living light as the strands move in the air. It should never become so heavy as to obscure the structure, or you wind up with one of those blow-up decorations in the yard, entirely filled with nothing, and prone to collapse at the slightest interruption in electrical current.

Unlike the author, who, filled with coffee, can then take the slightest of ideas in the form of a century-old book in a plain cloth cover and weave it into something somewhat substantial. At least, until the comments take aim at it. For now, I shall go pull a book from my shelf I’d forgotten I owned, and retreat to a quiet place to read a while, and refresh my mental strength.

*Just because I highly doubt something is possible, does not make it impossible, simply improbable. You can certainly pick up tips from various non-fiction treatises on how to commit fiction. I just don’t think you can learn de novo to write fiction from such, without having read fiction.

6 comments

    1. Congrats!

      And awesome post. Of course, I may blame you in a couple of hours because I have that same book and am now feeling the urge to go find it on my disorganized shelves and have a look at it again.

  1. I advise all critiquers to start with the big picture because by the time those are fixed, particular issues vanish, to be replaced by new.

    Systematic language issues, those they can mention.

  2. Well, of course I concur. You can’t tell stories without hearing an awful lot of “Story”. Note that I said “hearing” — “reading” would be a much later development.

    We ground our satisfaction in a story well “told”, and learn to tell stories to our friends or children in return. That is a craft in its own right. Perusing the shelves for stories well “written” is a later development, but of course it’s the opening to the more learned tools of our craft as well as the treasures of people remote to us in time or place.

    But, just as the rhetoric example says, first you must have a story to tell. The words are secondary; they are our hands waving in the air to illustrate what we mean when we fabulate around the campfire. The words serve the story.

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