Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How We Know Writers Through Their Writing

Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon explores how the best writers speak to us through their singular literary styles.

One day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck...
— Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Like that single footprint, all writing is proof positive: a human was here. As we track a writer's inky step across the snowy page, we want to know, "Who goes there?"

Who is a who? What makes you you and me me? Who knows?  I sense the human self as the active being within all of us who decides what we'll do in the next moment of life. What we do reveals who we are:

Human character evermore publishes itself. The most fugitive deed and word, the mere air of doing a thing, the intimated purpose, expresses character. If you act you show character; if you sit still, if you sleep, you show it.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Spiritual Laws"

No two selves are exactly alike. Inside each of us swirl vast galaxies of everything we feel, remember, imagine and experience. A gulf as well as a bond exists between us and neighboring galaxies: "I am like others; no one else is me."

To reach other selves, we signal with our voices, faces, hands, and bodies; other selves likewise signal us. Most signals are fleeting, cut to the need of each succeeding moment, yet they can be uncannily precise in conveying what a person is like: "The way you wear your hat!" Writers often describe the teeming exchange of human signals. Here Dostoyevsky:

Ferdyshchenko could not keep still; Rogozhin looked on bewildered and kept looking at the prince and Pitsyn with terrible uneasiness. Darya Alexeyevna seemed unable to bear the suspense much longer. Even Lebedev was unable to restrain himself, came out of his corner, and, craning his neck perilously, began peering over Pitsyn's shoulder at the letter, with the air of a man who was afraid of getting a sound thrashing then and there for doing so.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

The immediate thought that inspires a signal looms large in its content; age, sex, cultural heritage, emotional mood, circumstance, and time of day, year and era all contribute elements, many of which the signaler and receiver, fish in their own water, barely notice.

An artist is a self signaling and hoping to be understood. To gain control over their signaling, artists study, practice and experiment endlessly, aiming at such mastery over movement that every gesture gets its message across. What composer Roger Sessions wrote of music is true of all the arts:

In embodying movement, in the most subtle and most delicate manner possible, music communicates the attitudes inherent in and implied by that movement.
— Roger Sessions, The Musical Experience

When we understand artistic gestures, Sessions continues, we get a "clear sense of a quality of feeling behind them." That "clear sense of a quality of feeling" is the knowledge of another self.

Like their neighbors, artists have only gesture and the moment to report their findings. To leap that limit, artists gesture so as to mark material, hoping that the "quality of feeling" animating the gesture will live on in the mark when the moment is gone. They do not hope in vain; Walt Whitman is with us every time we read his long loose lines:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd...
— Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

We reanimate the artist by coming to a growing conclusion about who would mark so, just as Sherlock Holmes concluded that Watson was a doctor by reading clues in his appearance:

... if a gentleman walks into my room smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the side of his top hat to show where he had secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession."
— A. Conan Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia"

Artists pack their marks with information about their selves. The form and detail, style and content that they choose reveal much. Capable artists need only a little black and white to present themselves vividly. Here is Shakespeare:

To be or not to be, that is the question.

Who is Shakespeare? Any conclusion must grow by leaps and bounds to keep abreast of his quick self! Carlyle finds in Shakespeare's writing "calmness of depth; placid joyous strength," yet the Bard too can howl hurricanes of words:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fire...
King Lear

Shakespeare's mark reveals that he loves his native England, its language and its soil, its plants and animals, its people, place, and history. We can read in his mark that he is fine craftsman who knows the theater, stage and pit, as well as any man before or since. He loves a good joke and can tell one too. He loves men and women and knows us to our marrows. Shakespeare reveals so much in his extraordinary mark that centuries of unwearied scholarship have but begun to mine his meanings. Remember, however, all his words flow from a single self, a human like you and me, a benevolent genius who glows like a golden smile in the stage lights every time his work is played.

Shakespeare is a writer great enough to stand for all writers: as we may know Shakespeare through his mark, so may we know all writers through theirs. When a writer, like Shakespeare, looks life in the face and writes what he sees, the self that sees and writes lives in the writing. This is the voice that beguiles us to read. We are being called by another galaxy. Through the grille of words on the page is a person as real, enormous, silly, bright and cloudy as ourselves, and he or she is talking to us.

In sum, we can see the writer through the paper mask. The writer is not us because we did not and could not mark just so; he is like us because we can read and understand his mark. Can we know a writer perfectly? No, but neither can we know perfectly our next-door neighbor. Is a writer friend or foe? To know that, read and decide for yourself!

For me, good writers are good friends. They entertain me through fair and foul weather, share thoughts and feelings with me, and tell tales that enchant me. Good writers cheer and challenge me, and the joys and sorrows they relate convince me they know my own. I value their writing as I treasure the homely and revealing ways of those I truly love.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday May 13th 2010, 10:18 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
The ideas were interesting, and I appreciate articles on writing on the VT, but I think this piece is somewhat naïvely committed to glorifying writer's individual voices. Even though we can identify different writing styles, and critics have made great strides on pinning down patterns of word use associated with certain writers, several possibilities are left out here.

For instance, if a writer assumes a voice (say, Shakespeare in his plays, or Joyce alternating from Stephen to Bloom to Molly in Ulysses), and we consider it a credible and distinct voice, then it has to be significantly different from other voices in order to warrant saying that all of them are in fact Shakespeare's (or Joyce's) unique voice. With that caveat, it seems facile to reconstruct a writer's personality from the voices into which she has dispersed her writing. Even autobiographies assume personae, which often must remain more internally consistent than the author would be in reality.

Another possibility not considered here are collective works, which may seem strange to post-Romantic literature, but were pretty common back in Shapespeare's time. Today we get another sort of below-the-radar collaboration existing between writers and editors. For instance, how much of what we think is "truly" Chandler is already inextricably mixed with Gordon Lish, as this New Yorker article eloquently shows?
Thursday May 13th 2010, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Yes, a writer may use many tones of voice, styes of expression, to convey different characters and points of view, but from that we can learn: this writer is someone who likes to mix tones and styles in his or her writing.
Thursday May 13th 2010, 1:11 PM
Comment by: Christine B.
Responding to Mr. or Ms. anonymous, I don't know much about glory, but each person who puts pen in hand and then allows another person to read is unique. Even a collaborative has a last person/editor who sends it off in the mail, paper or otherwise. Naivete has nothing to do with it. I liked this posting so much that I forwarded it to a beloved grand daughter for review and enlightenment. There is nothing new under the sun or moon for that matter.
Friday May 14th 2010, 7:58 AM
Comment by: MLou (Arlington, MA)
In the last few months, I've stopped writing my second book, a book I've been working on for many years. The "stoppage" was preceded by 3 serious rejections and a few medical complications. Until this morning, I had not even acknowledged that I had given up.

In his book,"Asylums," Erving Goffman includes a paper which he describes as "an exercise in the institutional approach to the study of the self." I think it's there that Goffman writes about the power of a smile from one human being to another. (I'll look it up and get back to you.)

When you wrote, "Who is a who? What makes you you and me me?" you revived in me the wish to continue. Thank you.

Mary Lou Shields
Friday May 14th 2010, 1:11 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Do not give up, Mary Lou, no matter what!!! Keep writing! And yes, smiles have great power!
Friday May 14th 2010, 6:04 PM
Comment by: MLou (Arlington, MA)
(With a smile.)
Monday June 7th 2010, 2:48 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
Ah, the writer shines through the work regardless of the material, the style, the story itself. There was 'that' which conceived it, took the time to marry words to thoughts, polished and pondered over choice of word to present-evoke exactly the right nuance. Yes, we know the author to some extent...we see a snapshot behind every single work.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

Sentence Life
The Power of Metaphor