Friday, February 11, 2011

The Invisible Writer

I’ve heard it said that a writer should strive to be invisible in his or her own work. I’ve heard that your prose should be transparent so that nothing stands in between the reader and the story. I’ve heard that if a sentence sounds like writing it should be rewritten until it doesn’t. I confess that I’ve never completely understood these kinds of statements, and my initial reaction is to take a stand against them.

First, writing cannot completely escape an element of the artificial. Language evolved as a face to face way of communicating information. Writing is one step removed from that. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make our writing feel natural, but communicating through writing requires steps that face to face communication doesn’t. Writing is not talking and cannot be treated like it. Writing, by its very nature, is more formal than talking, and I personally consider that a strength rather than a weakness.

Second, when I read the writers who are said to exhibit transparent prose I find myself even more confused. Stephen King, for example. I like a lot of King’s work but every time he throws in words, phrases and even whole sentences written in all caps I find myself wincing and completely aware that I’m “reading” a story and not living it. Lee Child is another example. His transparent prose is so deliberately ‘unwriterly’ that it calls attention to its very attempt not to call attention. Child tells a good story, but I’d much rather his prose be a bit less “invisible.” It would make it easier for me to read.

Third, I may be a writer but I’m also a reader, and I’ve been a reader much longer. I find that I just don’t enjoy “transparent” prose. There are some known writers whose names I won’t mention who strive to write invisible prose. I can’t even read them. It’s like eating gruel. It’s like drinking flat soda. It’s like being on a diet that allows no sugar, no salt, no fat, no taste.

I love a good story, and if the story is good I’ll forgive some mundane prose. But I’ve read a lot in my day, and the story had better be really good. And I know that, for myself, I don’t just read for the story. I read to be immersed, to be enthralled, to see and hear and feel the (a) world in ways I haven’t before. You can’t do that for me with everyday language. You’ve got to give me a little poetry.

27 comments:

Angie said...

I'm with you on wanting some flavor in my reading. I've heard the invisible writer thing before, and to me it sounds like just another iteration of My Way Of Writing Is The Best, which is always garbage. If some people, readers and writers both, prefer perfectly transparent prose, then cool. If others prefer other styles, that's cool too. Whatever works for the writer and their readers works, and someone trying to play guru and preach their own personal style to the exclusion of every other style is nothing but annoying.

Angie

the walking man said...

What ever that means (a writer should strive to be invisible in their work)it seems to me that in order to do that the writer needs to live a life with their gear shifter always in neutral. I don't know any writer who can not stop their own emotion or experience from at least some little bit translating onto the page.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, absolutely. There's no right or wrong way for every reader and writer. I know people who adore Lee child's work. Too me I'd like a little more oomph.

Mark, yes, and that's part of why I read, to get another person's take on things, to feel things through another mind so to speak.

Tom said...

I kind of like reading stories that feel like they are being told to me. I like the "voice" to be relatable. Things like using huge words, and "educated" speach kind of turn me off. Unless, like you say, it's a really good story.

Ironically, I tend to shy away from first-person narratives. Not sure why that is.

BernardL said...

I'm moved by uplifting prose, but if a story's good and mixed with humor the prose can be as plain as walnut shells for me. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom, I do like first person narration. I feel a sense of immediciacy with it, and I rather like writing in first person. I know many who like it and many who don't. Someday we'll have to try to figure out the difference between them.

Bernardl, the better the story, the less important the prose becomes. I'll certainly agree with that.

David J. West said...

I'm with you Charles-I love the sense of "Sit down and let me tell you what happened..." or even having the poetry of description-sometimes as a writer I think you do need to TELL and not just SHOW.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J. West. yes, exactly. Bring me into it, not only just from the story, but from the description and poetry of it. It's best when it's the whole package.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Never realized there was such a thing as transparent prose.

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, I've seen it talked about here and there. I thought King mentioned it in his book "on writing" but when I was lookign for it the other night I couldn't find it.

Tyhitia Green said...

This is why I read widely--to get a sense of different styles and what makes a story good so that I can create my own stories in a way that will enthrall the reader. Great post, Charles. :-D

Charles Gramlich said...

Tyhitia, I think some folks are really sort of tone deaf when it comes to appreciating the rhythm of prose. to them the music of the prose makes no difference. But to me it does.

Ron Scheer said...

I'm an oddball. I am aware of the writer writing even while I suspend disbelief and "live" as you say the imagined experience. Same way with movies. I'm aware of the creative decisions being made while I'm also following and enjoying the story.

It may be because I've long been interested in illusion itself. Godard, I think it was, talked about the difference between an illusion of reality and the reality of an illusion. The interplay between the two fascinates me. The style of writing contributes to that, or it doesn't.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, I like that. And I think, like you, I'm not thrown out of the story merely by noticing the writer writing. If the poetry of it holds me then it enhances the experience rather than detracting. I guess it's like food; although I am perfectly happy with plain good food, it's kind of nice when it's also presented well.

X. Dell said...

I couldn't agree more. Even when writing for the screen (big or small) the words still have an air of formality about them, basically because the writer has very little space in which to make things clear. The writer thus relies upon the acting and directing to make dialogue sound "natural." (And in many, many cases, it never does.)

Captain Black said...

From now on I'm going to ignore all so-called writing "rules", unless I can determine two things:

* Their provenance/origin.
* (More importantly) their justification/reasoning.

Thank you. That is all.

ivan@creativewritng.ca said...

For some reason, this site bedevils my browser, and at any rate, I think these Wal*Mart glasses don't help.
I mistakenly read Patricia O'Connors blog on grammar first, before perusing yours on The Invisible Writer. Patricia's was a good blog....Brought out the grammarian in the closet.

So Zowie! I'll just repring it here.


While no grammarian has ever written anything of real consequence, one would be a real ignoramus to try to sully the craft of writing without an awareness of grammar...Uless, maybe, you're a theologian, like Rabbi Burns. :)
Scots broad is acceptable as well as ghetto rap...But even here, you must be hip..stay in the groove....never awkward.

In a word, you have to know the rules before you can break them.

My best advice came from a decrepid playwright who said the first thing i needed to know was the difference between the subjenctive and the indicative.
Tongue twisting, yes, but
this is best shown in Patricia O'Conors little test up above.

I wish I was / were in St. Kitts.

Gotta be like a Frenchman to do it right--to know the difference between the subjunctive--as it may be at all times--and the indicative, or the way it actually WAS.
And then I'd read Humpty-Dumpty's incomparable speech to Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

What do I know? I am merely God. :)

...And while full of that hubris,I wanna tap somebody's head with a pencil eraser for getting his singularls and plurals mixed up.
I grate when someody says something like "everybody must pick up their books..." Grr!

Cold it be that I am a closet grammarian? Egad.

Charles Gramlich said...

X. Dell, the writer, or artist of any type, I guess, has to learn the strengths of 'their' medium and not try to make it sound exactly or be exactly like some other medium.

Captain Black, that's probably a good idea, and you'll be the better for it.

ivan, I just woke up so haven't changed my own blog post to reflect the fact that mine went up yesterday. Will do that. Haven't even read the grammarian blog post but will do so now with your comments in mind.

laughingwolf said...

agreed, charles...

the best reads are those where i'm drawn into the story, not as a participant but as an observer, though totally "involved'... failing that, the tale fails as well...

Travis Erwin said...

I writer trying to be invisible is the literary equivalent of mental masturbation. I want to be engaged with the writer and not seeing traces of their involvement is sort of like closing your eyes and imagining what a woman feels like. It will do in a pinch but it's not nearly as satisfying.

Travis Cody said...

I have a book by Lee Child that I just haven't been able to get into. The description of the story is intriguing, but each time I try to read it I just don't like it.

I wonder if this idea of invisible prose is the reason. There's just something in the writing that is unappealing to me.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Joel Saltzman says, "IF YOU CAN TALK, YOU CAN WRITE." It's also the title of his self-help book on writing; I think his book's useful for memoir, but not fiction. Could it be that "invisible prose" has something to do with it? I'm not too sure.

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, There are definitely several elements needed for a story to ‘truly’ work.

Travis Erwin, lol. Very good analogy. I hadn’t thought of that, but now I will.

Travis Cody, I made it through the first Lee child I read but while the story was decent the prose really kept kicking me out of the tale. I probably won’t read another. AT least not anytime soon.

JR, I spend a lot of time in my writing for psychology book talking about how writing and talking are two very different things. Both involve language, and that’s close to the extent of their similarity.

Liane Spicer said...

Yes! A good story trumps all, of course, but it's so very satisfying when it's told in luminous poetic prose. The God of Small Things comes to mind. A colleague hated it for the poetic imagery; I couldn't put it down for the same reason.

I think trying to separate the writer from the tale that comes filtered through his psyche, intellect and experience is something of an affectation. I dislike that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane, I have not read THe god of small things but with that recommendation I'm going to look it up right away.

Lana Gramlich said...

I can hear you say "poetry" in my head & I love it (and you.)

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, you remarkably silly and yet the sweetest thing.