Douglas Wilson. Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2011. 120 pages. $13.00.
In C. S. Lewis’s fantasy world Perelandra, a place with no sin or evil, repetition is like “asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.” Perfection has the concept of “enough,” where pleasure is complete and repetition is vulgar. For those of us who read and re-read writing how-to books like Harry Potter novels, we look for that sense of “enough,” where the formula works and we’re satisfied.
Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy offers no such promise, since it’s not his to give. Besides, it probably doesn’t exist outside the world of Forms. But Wilson provides a guide to the “writing life” that doesn’t simply excerpt good writing from classic literature to illustrate his principles but attempts to be the model of good writing itself.
For example, Wilson offers a real gem when warning against “writing by rules” for fear coming up with something “like verbal tapioca pudding made with skim milk. Our world already has too much verbiage in it that comes off like it was written by a committee or a computer—or maybe a committee of computers.” Or when mocking aspiring writers who quote the right people so they can be known as someone who quotes the right people. “They quote Austen like Mary quoted her 18th-century bromides, and were Austen here to see them do it, she’d slap them right into her next book, and it wouldn’t be pretty.”
To be clear, Wilson doesn't live in Greenwich Village and boast a contract with a New York publishing house. He’s a pastor in Moscow, Idaho, who started his own classical education movement and a college to follow. His periodical, Credenda Agenda, stirs up no small wrangles among Presbyterians. None of this slights Wilson. He has lived his own counsel: “Live an actual life, a full life, the kind that generates a surplus of stories.” He types with dirt under his fingernails.
Though Wilson never says so, writers quickly realize there is such a thing as bad style. But to perfect your style, you don’t spend all your time reading manuals. Wilson doesn’t include sections on brevity, unity, or usage. Rather he instructs us to get a life, read until our brains creak, get to know how language works by reading dictionaries, and learn a foreign language. In other words, Wordsmithy isn’t a manual on how to write a great novel so you can go home and write it this afternoon. Rather, if you want to be a writer, Wilson offers tips for what you do for the next 30 years.
The mindful reader will realize that to follow Wilson all the way will make you a certain kind of writer. He does not dispense generic tips. To be sure, any writer who wants to improve would need to follow the spirit of Wilson’s tips, but to be a Wilson-kind-of-writer means to value a certain rhetorical style. Maybe there’s a label for this school of writing, but if there is, I don’t know its name. I only have a sense of it, a rhythmic prose that follows the Austen-Chesterton-Wodehouse-Lewis line of quick wit and belly-laughs. You probably know the kind.
If an author is going to give us tips for a writing life, he only knows one kind of life, his own. He only knows to suggest certain books, the ones he's read. So we need to choose our writing manuals wisely, just like we need to choose our teachers wisely.
Let’s suppose, though, for a moment that you, like Mark Twain, despise writers like Jane Austen. “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone,” Twain said. I can imagine that Twain would be impatient with Wilson as well. Does it follow, then, that we should neglect a book like Wilson’s? There certainly are other books like Stephen King’s On Writing, which gives writing lifestyle instructions without the Anglo-Saxon wit that Twain despised as flighty.
But here’s my case for Wilson’s Wordsmithy. Wilson doesn’t give tips for taking command of Lewis or Wodehouse, but he shows us a lifestyle that takes command of the English language. He doesn’t teach us to be mockers but to be deft wordsmiths.
You shouldn’t be as cranky as Twain anyway. Austen will make your nose snort with laughter, and so does Wilson. He’ll spin your head with prose and make you wonder how he did it. He won’t tell you how he did it, but he’ll write five more and then point to authors who do it all the time. He shows young writers still looking for their voice how to find one. You’ll read this book fast and go back to it again. Wilson has wisdom only a wise man knows.