IN a quiet street near the literal centre of London is an unassuming house built in the typical Georgian style of the 18th century. A banner proclaims to beholders, Benjamin Franklin House, in big letters. In some literature. the proclamation is more dramatic, “the only Benjamin Franklin House in the world”.
The Franklin who stayed in the house is better known now as one of the drafters of the American Declaration of Independence and a Founding Father, and his country’s distinguished ambassador to France.
But in life, Franklin was variously an inventor, writer, dabbler in electricity (many terms now connected to electricity were coined by him), discoverer of the Gulf Stream and a nuisance to neighbours who must have occasionally seen him standing or sitting in the raw. To improve the powers of sight, he invented the bifocals.
So, there he was, of a morning, sitting at his desk with a book and poring through pages and pages with the aid of his home-made spectacles. In days when the staleness of the atmosphere did not cause so much as a ripple, Franklin believed in the restorative powers of fresh air.
“I rise early almost every morning,” he wrote to his French friend Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, a physician, “and sit in my chamber, without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing.”
And he would have spent many, many hours doing so.
The man who was partly responsible for the Declaration of Independence came to writing through a hard slog, as he explained in his autobiography. He first looked for a role model, and then he would sit down and copy down every word written by his admired author,
absorbing every word as he re-wrote, taking in the arguments,
the nuances and the way the story was told.
His father once ticked him off for being “ineloquent”, but, being a resourceful man, he taught himself how to learn to write. In this route Franklin made use of most of his mental faculties: imagination, feeling and memory. In recent studies it was found that when you handwrite, a process known as haptics takes place between hand and brain that somehow develops the latter. This may have come into play too as many teachers in the past advocated this route to learn the skill. Copy but be aware of what you copy.
In his path to learning Franklin went even further. In the days that followed his copying of the piece he would come back, write an outline of the article, rewrite the ideas expressed by the writer, imitate the style and then write a piece that countered the arguments proposed by the author.
The idea behind Franklin's way is almost similar to one now proposed by one of the leading lights of our day in the field of language and cognition, Steven Pinker. In his forthcoming book, The Sense of Style, Pinker talks about the reverse engineering involved in writing. To write you must know about writing, you must learn to savour the good prose of others. You need imagination too, and what's worse, we have lost the sense of knowing what not knowing is like.
Why should we know what it is like to be in a position of not knowing? For a writer this is a position of utmost importance, because reading is discovering and to lead someone into this alley you need to know the way to get there. Imagination, says Pinker, is what will take them there, yours and the reader's. The writer needs to imagine and maintain the illusion. It requires an act of imagination: maintaining the illusion that one is directing a reader’s gaze to something in the world, the blurb to his book says.
In any writing manual and you'll find the author almost hectoring you not to write. Don't do this, split infinitives, speak in the passive. And something that I have always found to be extremely baffling: show, don't tell. I have read many good writers who show and I have read many good writers who tell.
We all write in our own way, but learning those first steps from another, especially someone you admire, is a good and safe route there. Benjamin Franklin sweated himself over this, though he quickly learned how to keep himself cool. I am not now recommending that you sit yourself bare in your comfortable chair, but take it slowly, do it decently and copy and copy until good writing becomes for you, second nature.
It is the imagination that feeds both reading and writing. Many writers who write with imagination have flouted the rules of writing, though understanding how sentences complement one another and how syntax works are all essential skills. Grammar is essential, though Pinker, a Canadian, dismisses many English grammar rules as classist anachronisms invented in 18th century Britain.Do not be obscure, advises Pinker. Be clear. Make yourself understood to the reader. In an interview with CBSnews, Janice Stein of Toronto University gives this valuable advice, write in a language that even your family can understand. WAN A. HULAIMI - NST Columnist 20 JULY 2014 @ 8:19 AM