Water Lilies by Jim Harris

14

Sept

Its probably on page three

GW

 My father John in party mood. He was a great raconteur and essayist

During my time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Mary College, London I found that many students, and especially those who were diligent in their research, imagined that they could not start to write an essay before they had worked out in their head what it was they wanted to say. Yet whenever they began to write they found they were overwhelmed by the knowledge they had acquired and could not find a way into it. It is a familiar dilemma for anyone writing factual articles or books. Students would tell me they had been advised to map out their essay before they started writing, to follow the rules about referencing and to make sure they had a clear and firm conclusion. What they presented to me as a draft was, nevertheless, invariably a jumble of quotes and propositions which were barely intelligible.

 

They would ask if I could help them with grammar and “writing style” as if that was the problem. Flicking through the pages they had presented to me and wondering how on earth I was going to help them in the brief hour of the tutorial I found myself  relating something my father had said years earlier and which, if properly understood, could be a way to arrange their thoughts and lend their essay some coherence. What they needed was not a firm conclusion but a clear idea at the outset what their essay was about. If they could find that then everything else would fall into place.

 

My father was an academic who had a reputation as a fine essayist and reviewer. The longest pieces he wrote were no more than three thousand words but he laboured at them for days and sometimes weeks. He made extensive hand written notes before he moved to his ancient portable typewriter to begin his first draft. I remember asking him how he decided what the opening paragraph of an essay should be. Had he worked it out in advance?  He thought about it and said: “ I usually discover what I want to say on page three. Everything before that is just dross which I have to get out of the way. “

 

This casual remark my father made years ago became for me a mantra in my writing tutorials. I liked the fact that it puzzled the students at first so that I needed to explain it. What it emphasized was the fact that whenever you begin to put down in writing the thoughts milling about in your head you start a dialogue with one part of your brain which has all the information and another part which is attempting put it into some kind of order. What was fluid is now there in black and white, solidified as it were. You can therefore examine it closely. In my experience those first attempts to get down what you think are always clumsy but I don’t throw them away: I keep going. I always find I am attempting to say the same thing over and over again in a slightly different way. Eventually I get a sense of what is not working and discard certain ideas and bring in new thoughts. It feels like a process of discovery which can only unfold because I emptying my thoughts onto the page. With luck, after many attempts, I will write a paragraph which gets at the essence of what I want to say. This is what I have come to think of as the “page three” revelation.

 

With a number of students I was able to flick through their draft essay and to find, some way into their text, a “page three” paragraph. I was pleasantly surprised how often it worked. With the student sitting alongside I would take that paragraph and put it at the beginning of their essay jettisoning everything that went before. We could then work together to smarten up their opening  paragraph confident that we were now “getting off on the right foot. “

 

A student of English Literature suggested that my father’s “ secret of page three” was perhaps a bit like E. M. Forster’s much quoted “ how do I know what I think until I see what I say?” The student believed Forster was describing his own approach to literary discovery and at first I thought it might be a witty way of encapsulating the belief in the my father’s belief in the revelations of page three. In fact, Forster was writing tongue in cheek, gently satirising an approach to creative fiction in his book Aspects of the Novel.  When the French novelist Andre Gide said he would discover what his fiction was about in the process of writing he was no different from an anecdotal elderly lady, taunted by her nieces about the meaning of logic, who exclaimed “ how do I know think until I see what I say. “ If that were to read

“ how do I know what I think until I see what I have written” then I think I would go along with it.

 

All writing, whether of fiction or factual books and articles ,involves a certain amount of “discovery”. In the case of the non-fiction books I write it is about finding a way of encapsulating what you want to say in a creative way. The magic of page three says you cannot achieve that without finding out what you think by examining what you have written and throwing away the dross.

 

This is not the same as editing, which comes at a later stage when you are happy with the structure of what you are writing and you are discarding text which you feel is irrelevant or re-working what you find clumsy or not as eloquent as you would like. I found I could not begin to edit student essays if it was obvious they had no idea what the whole thing was about. Vocabulary and grammar were irrelevant. What I looked for was always something that might serve as the “secret of page three” and if it was not there I would go looking for it by “interviewing” the student about what they had discovered in their research and what conclusions they had drawn.

 

When you teach you rarely discover if you have been of any help but I like to think that somewhere a former student of mine at Queen Mary College has benefited from my father’s casual remark and  looks to page three of their drafts to discover what it is they really want to say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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