Sir Terry Pratchett is an English fantasy novelist and Alzheimer’s sufferer. Apparently having Alzheimer’s has made him even more famous than the 70 million books in 37 languages that he has sold worldwide. I’m not sure on that one, but one thing I do know is that he is an all-round legend and his writing has personally inspired me in more ways than I knew… Until I took on this week’s Writing Challenge.
This week the challenge asked us to talk about a writer whose style has most influenced our writing voice.
Which really made me stop and think.
How do I write?
This blog is about, mainly, marine conservation. Its tone is generally one of news reportage, awareness-raising, and examination of issues. It’s called ‘Sea Change – transforming the way we view the world’ not because I have some egotistical idea that what I write will change the world, but because I believe that every action we take to improve our personal (and others’) environment will ultimately make some difference, and because Gandhi said “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”. Call it spreading the idea of good karma through positive influence, if you will.
I draw on my science background and love of the English language to (hopefully) write with an ‘informed’, informal bias towards the environment and against silly people (although I know we’re all only human in the end). Sometimes there’ll be a random post about a more personal issue – the frustrations of ink running out, how awesome my coffee cup is, or why I feel it’s okay to get out of bed on a Monday morning and face the world. I’m influenced by my surroundings (especially on a sunny day), by my lower-middle-class-upper-working-class English upbringing, by the places I go, the people I meet, the books I read and my own personal opinions.
Which were formed, to a large extent, during my first 20 or so years. This is perhaps because, as Sir Terry puts it, “Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.” I know that I certainly haven’t stopped gaining experience… But there is such a lot to learn when you start out, isn’t there?
As a self-proclaimed bookworm, I used to read a whole lot. These days I manage to bury my head in a chapter or two on the train during the daily commute, but time is limited (there seems to be so much less as you get older, don’t you think?) However, I still find time for my favourite author of all time, Terry Pratchett. His witty, cynical, satirical and often downright laugh-out-loud fantasy novel series, Discworld, has had me hooked for the past 15 years (at least). TP writes with an eloquent, fluent style which somehow manages to portray a flat world balancing on the backs of four elephants who are in turn standing on top of a giant turtle swimming slowly through space as a parody of our own in a funny, sharp and engaging way. His ideas on, for example, cats (“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.”), creation (“In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.”), and human existence (“The most important problem is we’re trying to understand the fundamental workings of the universe via a language designed for telling each other where the fruit is.”) have inevitably influenced me (I am a cat worshipper, an atheist, and a biologist. Go figure).
And although I’m not nearly as witty as Sir Terry, I like to think I’ve got a good dose of his cynicism, sarcasm and general outlook on life, along with a love of fantasy (on which subject TP says, “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.”)
In writing style, TP originally wrote whole books without a single chapter. He would separate periods of action between different characters with long paragraph breaks, and occasionally a line of asterisks. He also tended to use a lot of footnotes. These days I’ve noticed that chapters are appearing in his novels, but perhaps this is in response to his Alzheimer’s disease, making it easier to keep track of the order of things. Or perhaps his writing style has just changed.
I don’t write novels. Or at least, I haven’t completed one yet. If I did I would probably use chapters. In blogging I have been known to use headers (occasionally), bullet points (rarely), and pictures (quite often, to make things more interesting). But the influence of Sir Terry is still there in the long – and short – sentences, occasional comment that seems pretty random, and dry tone that I have been told sometimes crawls out from the woodwork to make itself heard.
I hope that I write eloquently enough. Sometimes I even try for humour. Perhaps I’m less cynical than I think I ought to be, since the introduction of the idea that humanity will inevitably destroy itself (consider: “Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying ‘End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH’, the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry.”) Perhaps this is because I believe that the world is, in spite of everything, a pretty awesome place. It’s a good thing to notice the negative aspects, the problems we are causing (locally, globally, in nature and amongst ourselves), and the issues which need action. This will lead us towards a better living environment, and in the end, that’s what we’re all aiming for, isn’t it?
But let’s not lose sight of the big picture. Burying yourself in cynicism and disillusionment won’t make your world a better place. Face it, life’s pretty funny. If Terry Pratchett can find humour in the chaos of society, and quiet dignity in the face of an illness which is whittling away at his mind, I think anybody can. So let’s go out there and be positive. Be realistic. Be hopeful.
Most of all, let’s have a laugh. I think that’s what Terry Pratchett would say.