A Scrupulous Writer

“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” -George Orwell

The more I write the more I recognise a difference between what I find interesting and what I think I ought to find interesting.

It mirrors the difference between genuine creativity and a lesser form of productivity that is almost entirely shaped by expectations, pre-existing tropes, and derivations of genre.

In his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell wrote that:

“modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

The first person to write that some fact or principle is ‘key’ was creative, even poetic. Yet the metaphor has since become a common synonym for ‘important’ or ‘vital’, and we use it without considering its metaphorical source. We use it and many other words without truly thinking, because thinking is very difficult and turns writing into hard work.

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

The ideal for a writer is to be fresh, vivid, and clear. Orwell’s “ready-made phrases” are like heavily-processed junk food: convenient, easy, enjoyable in small doses, but lacking substance and ultimately sickening.

The same dichotomy of fresh and stale applies to creativity in general. In a recent review of his memoirs, the lauded Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki criticises the pervasive consumer-culture of Japan, and the self-referential nature of its mainstream creative industries:

“The largest problem facing the manga industry is that the people running it are anime fanatics, known as otaku in Japan. These “sickly otaku types,” as Miyazaki called them, were reared on manga and Japanimation, and developed an inordinate desire for them—their shape, scale, motion, symbols, and narrative tropes. Such children, “locked in [manga’s] own enclosed world,” became illustrators themselves, reinforcing the enclosure. With their arrival in the industry, characters became boxier, eyes ballooned, and, to be frank, breasts grew larger. The expressiveness of the manga industry was further attenuated, a cycle that cheapens and thins the general taste of Japanese society. These otaku, “raised amidst the clamor,” Miyazaki said, “probably can’t be the flag bearers for new images.”

Miyazaki’s critique of otaku culture is surely relevant to the creative culture of any nation, where consumption and production risk becoming a closed circle. Miyazaki’s solution is likewise a familiar one for any creator struggling to break free of the all-too-accessible repository of images and ideas to which we are, as consumers, exposed on a daily basis. The struggle to be original rather than derivative, and fresh rather than stale, begins with the kind of creative nourishment that only reality can provide; the ‘new images’ that can only arise from the creator’s direct contact with the truth and integrity of the real.

“To bear “new images,” to make films that liberate, the filmmaker must himself be liberated, free of the customs of the genre. That’s why Miyazaki frequently stresses that he does not “watch film at all” and describes his own career as an ongoing effort to escape the yoke of his great forebear, Osamu Tezuka, the father of manga, creator of Astro Boy, and Miyazaki’s greatest influence. That’s also why he strongly urges that, if an illustrator is to spur audiences to seek and love the world, he must himself be filled with its riches. That is, he must gain an intelligent understanding of it by cultivating “a constant interest in customs, history, architecture, and all sorts of things.” Otherwise, he “can’t direct.” And if he doesn’t have time to study, he must “look carefully at what is right in front of [him].” If he fails to do so, no matter what he makes, “it turns out to be a film we’ve seen somewhere, or something we’ve seen in manga.”

The circle of consumption and creation is not entirely vicious: the evolution of an art form depends upon generations of growth and refinement, and it does indeed seem ‘curmudgeonly’ for Miyazaki to criticise a younger generation of creators in an industry that has expanded and changed remarkably within his own lifetime. In any creative field the pioneers enjoy the greatest integrity, uninhibited by either established ‘customs of the genre’ or by the commercial forces of a mature industry with its own ideas of what works and what presents a viable consumer product.

But within the confines of a mature industry, Miyazaki correctly identifies the depth and breadth required by any creator to go beyond the stale and customary, and embrace the ‘new images’ that are the substance of true creativity.

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2 thoughts on “A Scrupulous Writer

  1. [Apologies in advance for any use of ‘lazy’ metaphors. (Note to self: describing a metaphor as ‘lazy’ IS a metaphor itself!)]

    And yet one of the most creative people of my generation, Bob Dylan, sucked in — like the proverbial dry sponge — metaphors, idioms, catchphrases and whole genres of music and reused them so much he was often accused of downright plagiarism.

    Sure, he actually created (perhaps) hundreds himself, but his work was never constrained by a ‘purity of originality’.

    Let’s not even mention Andy Warhol!

    Some creativity is stand out original with an artist who is almost contemptuous of the mob. Others immerse themselves up to their necks and still manage to have something enduring to say.

    • Thanks Faz, that’s a really good point.
      [note: ‘metaphor’ is apparently also a metaphor, from the Greek ‘to carry (meaning) across’]
      I find music and art a little harder to analyse, but might one argue that it was Dylan’s use of conventions in not-entirely conventional context that made him stand out?
      Still, you’re right that purity of originality can become a constraint.
      I don’t live up to these ideals myself, but its good to be able to work toward the ideal at least.

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