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From the writing shelf #1 – The Art of Writing

This article could also be entitled: “Advice from a century-old book”.

“I have read most of the Handbooks and all the Literature Classes. These are good guides; but none teaches technically and practically the art of writing.”

Antoine Albalat opens with these words his first chapter, “The Gift of Writing”, and set out to destroy the myth that writing is only for gifted people. He goes as far as saying that people who have no imagination will do very well without it. As comforting as that thought may be, I would venture to phrase it rather as follows: people who claim to have no imagination will find it around them. One can absolutely write no matter what one’s abilities are, gift or no gift. Talent is built on practice and a critical eye (in the sense of a constructive criticism, not the voice whispering that what you write is good for the bin. This one is usually wrong.)

I won’t describe to you every chapter from The Art of Writing. I wouldn’t want to spoil the book! However I’m going to present to you a few key ideas.

The third chapter can be summed up as a piece of advice you’ll find everywhere: to nourish and polish your writing, you should read. Antoine Albalat adds that you shouldn’t read everything and as much as possible, but rather read with a critical eye: the eye of a writer rather than the eye of a reader. Reread your favourite books, and think about the way the plot is built, the characters are presented and evolve throughout the narrative. Reread your favourite passages and ask yourself why they are your favourite.

In chapter 9, « Of invention », the author advises to feed your stories, even the most inventive ones, details from your own experience, because nothing will ring truer than the description of things or the narration of events you witnessed first-hand. This is a piece of advice you’ll find in most writing handbooks up to today: “write what you know”. You shouldn’t take it too literally and forbid yourself to write about entirely imaginary situations or characters. However, infusing them with elements you know directly will give life to them. A close relation has an exasperating habit? Attribute it to your character. A building from where you live stands out from the rest? Blow up its characteristics and create a fantastic palace. On the contrary, a neighbourhood feels cold and stilted? What can you introduce to break this fixedness? Don’t fear to run in a circle while describing things that surround you – your readership doesn’t live with you, so they won’t recognize the landscapes or cityscapes you take inspiration from. They will more probably be attracted to the new elements you bring to the picture, and build in their minds images far different from the ones you used as a stepping stone.

Antoine Albalat also writes about description, narration, dialogues. He always encourages the reader to avoid ready-made expressions, of which he draws a list that really evokes the 19th century but among which you can find some that are still in use today: a feverish impatience, a cozy warmth, an all-consuming activity, etc.

I opened this book without expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprise by the no-nonsense style of the author, the simplicity of the advice he gives, and the fact that most of them stand well the passage of time (but not always). This is in no way a revolutionary book, but if you like books about writing and are fluent in French, I can highly recommend this one, if only because it’s long out of copyright and therefore free.

Let me end on a quote by Quintilian found in Albalat’s handbook, about revising (loosely translated by myself):

“You should polish your work, not wear it down.”

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