Words by Thomas Dixon
This week our video posts return with Queen Mary academics reflecting on the reasons they write and on the rewards of writing. The accompanying post is by guest author Dr Thomas Dixon, Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London.
A couple of years ago, I picked up a book at random while on holiday in a former Priory in Sussex, and found myself captivated. The book was called A Time to Keep Silence. It was published in 1957, and its author was someone I had never heard of called Patrick Leigh Fermor. This writer seemed to me to have an astonishing capacity for both simplicity and richness of expression. I read his effortlessly evocative descriptions of monasteries, their inhabitants, histories, and surrounding landscapes with growing wonder. I thought I had discovered an unknown literary genius of the 1950s. In fact, I soon discovered, Fermor was a celebrated, practically legendary figure, who had died just a few weeks previously, and was considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest travel writers.
Reading a little more, including reviews of the recent biography of Fermor by Artemis Cooper, it became clear that this apparently effortless prose was the product of an arduous, sometimes agonised, and for long periods utterly fruitless process. The final part of Fermor’s great trilogy describing his journey on foot from the Netherlands to Constantinople in the 1930s, was only published posthumously. When he died at the age of ninety-six, Fermor had still not found the words he wanted to complete his account of a journey he had started when he was only eighteen. The unfinished manuscript he left behind was edited and published as The Broken Road earlier this year.
I imagine that Fermor might quite frequently have asked himself ‘Why write?’ Why am I putting myself through this? Why can’t I find the words? Why am I trying? I don’t know for sure what Fermor’s answer would have been, although I suspect it would have had a strong element of the aesthetic about it. An answer in this vein that I would recommend myself is inspired by another moment of my own reading that has stuck with me.
I was sitting by a lavender-bordered swimming pool in France when I first read The Elements of Drawing (1857) by the prolific Victorian art critic and social reformer John Ruskin. I was reading Ruskin in preparation for teaching a new course I was hurriedly putting together on ‘Victorian Values’. The idea of Ruskin’s that stuck with me was that the main point of learning to draw was so as to see better. In the Preface to The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin wrote, ‘I am nearly convinced that, when once we see keenly enough, there is very little difficulty in drawing what we see; but, even supposing that this difficulty be still great, I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw.’
Some things you read stick with you. And this idea of Ruskin’s about drawing seems to me applicable also to writing. Why write? So as to look more carefully and see more keenly. In the act of collecting together, brushing down, shaping up, and rearranging words, we perceive things afresh. In writing we see better. This applies to external realities, but especially to the contents of our own minds. For me, at least, one of the main points of writing is to discover what I think. And one of the main obstacles to writing is not being able to see what I think.
When it goes really well, writing produces not only creativity, insight and improved powers of perception, but also memorable moments of holiday reading for future generations.