Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Guest Blogger Carol Smallwood on Style

Over the past few weeks, I've featured guest posts from some of my fellow contributors to Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing. But none of us would have been tossed together were it not for the efforts of the book's co-editor, Carol Smallwood. So today it's her turn.

Please welcome Carol Smallwood.

            Style is impossible to see in your own writing even though you automatically detect it in the writing of others. The more you write, the more you want words to flow effortlessly. Once you no longer have to think where the letters of the keyboard are, words flow so much faster which brings make mistakes. Really a remarkable process -- that automatic pressing of keys to form words whether copying someone else’s or writing in the moment -- not unlike driving a car, turning on the television, and the hundreds of things we do without thinking every day. The flow of ideas, that is, changing ideas into words by keyboard via typing, gets easier with practice. When we're less concerned with mechanics, our style emerges.
        The word, style, is often associated with the fashion world; my dictionary gives 18 versions of style used as a noun or verb. But as far as writers, style means the way sentences are put together. Are they wordy, awkward, unclear? Do they involve poor word choices?  Too artsy, too chatty, choppy, or just plain boring?
        John Galsworthy, a Nobel laureate (1867-1933), who enjoyed a revival with the very successful television series, The Forsyte Saga, is a writer I keep rereading because of his style. He gives an excellent definition of it in a 1923 address: “Style is the power in a writer to remove all barriers between himself and his reader—the triumph of style is the creation of intimacy.” No matter if it is short stories, novels, plays, essays, letters, Galsworthy is a master.      
        The quote, Character is Fate, appears in Greek on the half title page, and is the last sentence of The Patrician. The beginning of Chapter I resembles an entrance song of a Greek tragedy: "Light, entering the vast room -- a room so high that its carved ceiling refused itself to exact scrutiny-travelled, with the wistful, cold curiosity of the dawn, over a fantastic storehouse of Time." And, as in a Greek tragedy, it is followed by dialogue. Greek myths such as the River Lethe are alluded to in the novel. Bliss Perry, in his Introduction to The Patrician, compares Lord Dennis's solution "with the finality of a Greek chorus."            
         In his preface to W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, Galsworthy wrote: “Style should not obtrude between a writer and his reader; it should be servant, not master. To use words so true and simple, that they oppose no obstacle to the flow of thought and feeling from mind to mind, and yet by juxtaposition of word-sounds set up in the recipient continuing emotion or gratification—this is the essence of style; and Hudson’s writing has pre-eminently this double quality.” 
         Style has been compared with fingerprints: our writing style is ours alone whether we like it or not. We may try to imitate other writers, but style is so personal, readers will be able to tell the difference. We are all unique and style reflects that, adding to that special flavor and fabric of words. Each of us sees through our own eyes which in turn decides our writing style. Each of us has our own DNA that is unique. Our own finger prints.
        Our backgrounds can’t help but hone our style. My affirmation of brevity is expressed by Alexander Pope, “Words are like leaves and where they most abound, Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found,” and most likely was further confirmed by taking quick notes as a history and English undergrad and grad. Annotations as a library science grad student topped it off. 
But my love for the concise came in handy as a columnist for newspapers like The Detroit News in the 1980’s and the anthology pieces I still write today. As an editor, my submissions guidelines for anthologies and essay collections include a preference for short pieces, which contributors say are harder to write. I pass along Gustave Flaubert’s advice: "Whenever you can shorten a sentence, do. And one always can. The best sentence? The shortest."  

Carol Smallwood's first poetry collection, Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) won a Pushcart nomination. She also co-edited both Women and Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (Foreword by Molly Peacock), a 2012 McFarland anthology.   

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