Back when we sat across the room from each other in a shared office, in the 1980s, when we ate lunch in the pub together, I asked Ian Rankin, who was already a published writer, if he’d give me some advice. He said that if he was going to give me one piece of advice it would be to lose the adjectives.
To be fair, he hadn’t read anything of mine, so he had no real way to know whether I over-used adjectives, but I was in my mid-twenties, so it was a pretty good bet that I did. Most new writers want to give it their all. They want to transmit emotion to the reader, and they figure that the best way to do that is to emote on the page.
Both Emma Brockes and Samira Ahmed, in their presentations at St Edmund Hall’s Writing Day in Oxford last Saturday talked on this very subject.
Emma Brockes is about to publish her second memoir, “She Left me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me”. It is, by all accounts, an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary woman, who overcomes... No, there’s no way to do it justice... Here’s the blurb:
When Emma Brockes was ten years old, her mother said 'One day I will tell you the story of my life and you will be amazed.' Growing up in a tranquil English village, Emma knew very little of her mother's life before her. She knew Paula had grown up in South Africa and had seven siblings. She had been told stories about deadly snakes and hailstones the size of golf balls. There was mention, once, of a trial. But most of the past was a mystery.
When her mother dies of cancer, Emma - by then a successful journalist at the Guardian - is free to investigate the untold story. Her search begins in the Colindale library but then takes her to South Africa, to the extended family she has never met and their accounts of a childhood so different to her own.She encounters versions of the life her mother chose to leave behind - and realises what a gift her mother gave her.
Part investigation, part travelogue, part elegy, She Left Me the Gun is a gripping, funny and clear-eyed account of a writer's search for her mother's story.
It doesn’t give much away, does it?
Emma Brockes and Samira Ahmed are journalists by profession, and that sets them apart as writers. They have a tendency to want to understand what has happened, and to extract the most salient facts to present a version of the truth that is accessible and comprehensive. They do not emote. To emote as a journalist, to toss around redundant adjectives, is to diminish the impact of a story, to impose one’s own limited world view on an event.
If a story is strong enough, if it carries some universal truth of its own, it needs no embellishment.
I agree whole-heartedly with this approach to writing, and it’s what I tried to do with my novel Naming Names. I still don’t know how far I succeeded, and now that the novel has gone through several drafts and has had other people’s ideas exercised upon it, I’m not sure how closely it expresses the idea that first arose in my mind four years ago. Perhaps I will never know whether I did what I set out to do. For now, it is enough that I made the attempt. It is certainly enough that Emma and Samira espouse the same values in writing the hard stuff that I cling to.
Who knows? Maybe one day.
(You can read Samira Ahmed's blog about the St Edmund Hall Writer's day here.)