A Civil Engineer’s View of Literature

I recently joined the Royal Society of Literature, and I’ve found that on their website (www.rsliterature.org) there are interesting pieces on topics related to reading and writing.  One piece which caught my eye is ‘Literature Matters: A Civil Engineer’s View’ by Gyan Shrivastava, who received his civil engineering education in India, Britain and the West Indies. He is a Chartered Civil Engineer.  After several years in the construction industry, he joined academia. In 2015, he retired as a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.

Gyan Shrivastava

In his article, he says: “I am a retired civil engineer. I worked in practice and in academia. In sum, I belong to the world of concrete and steel. At age thirty, however, I entered into the world of literature: a book, found in an aircraft’s seat-pocket, became a turning point.

“The daytime flight, over an endless blue ocean, was nondescript. I read the book A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. By the time I landed, I saw the world, and my life, through a different lens – a lens which showed me the outcome of self-absorption. Inspired, I read more. In time, the words of Virginia Woolf (‘How Should One Read A Book?’) became a beacon:

“‘—- I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their awards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms – Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’

“Not long ago, I came across The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, Professor of Psychoanalysis at University College in London. His words are telling: ‘Experience has taught me that our childhoods leave in us stories – stories we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us find the words. When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.’

“Needless to say, literature gave me a purpose in my twilight years: I am writing my own story. Unexpectedly, I find that it is not different from constructing bridges and buildings. Put simply, words become concrete and steel, sentences span words as beams, paragraphs support sentences as columns, and punctuation marks connect as bolts and nuts. Moreover, a civil engineer may even have an inbuilt advantage in the world of thoughts and emotions. That is to say, an economy in the use of building materials can translate into an economy of words!”

I particularly like his quotation from Virginia Wolf that reading is its own great reward.

I haven’t read The Examined Life, but the excerpt above resonates for me – more as a writer than a reader.  As a child, our experiences leave indelible impressions on us, and they are important enough that we keep returning to them, to understand their meaning for us as malleable individuals.  So, in this sense they are stories – stories which we need to tell – not necessarily in their entirety or all at once, but in pieces that can be laid out on a table like a grand jigsaw to be savoured and tested for relationships.  I have found that, as a writer, there are pieces of me scattered about and to which I attach a new meaning.

‘Swiping Left’ on Books

Camilla Turner, Education Editor at The Daily Telegraph, had an article on the April 2 issue of the Telegraph, which was titled: ‘Time to turn over a new leaf as infants ‘swipe left’ on books’.

“Children are swiping on books in an attempt to turn pages, teachers have said, as they are confusing them with mobile phones and iPads,” the article began.

“There is a ‘disturbing’ trend of children in reception and at nursery school picking up library books and trying to ‘swipe left’, delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference in Brighton were told.  During a debate about libraries, Jennifer Bhambri-Lyte, a delegate from North Somerset, told of “happy childhood memories” of “running into a library, snuggling in a corner with a book, cuddling up to mum, turning the pages, gazing at the pictures”.  She told the conference: “Kindles and iPads are wonderful things, but many of my friends talked about the smell of a book, finding tickets and receipts that someone had left as a bookmark, echoes of all the people that had been there before.”  Ms Bhambri-Lyte went on: “I’ve taught both nursery and reception and I personally still find it disturbing to see a child pick up a book and try to swipe left.” She said that books are a now luxury that many struggling families cannot afford, and that libraries can act as a “pair of armbands”.

“A previous report by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) advised parents to turn to iPads and Kindles to get boys interested in reading, amid fears that large numbers of children are shunning books at a young age.   Their research found that children aged three to five often read for longer and had a better grasp of vocabulary when accessing touch-screen technology. Tablet computers had a particular impact on groups that are traditionally most resistant to reading – particularly boys and infants from poor families, the study added.”

The article went on to complain about the reduction in the number of public libraries in the UK, due to budget cuts.  Quite what the relationship might be between ‘swiping left’ and library budget cuts is not clear.  For some reason, children swiping left in their library reminds teachers and librarians that budgets are being cut.  If one disentangles this strange logic, it seems to me that there is nothing particularly ‘disturbing’ about children swiping left.  They will soon learn that this is not the most effective way to turn the pages of a book.  On the other hand, reducing the number of public libraries is certainly a very poor idea.

Getting the “Beat” Right

I certainly didn’t know that a ‘beat’ is a brief bit of action which is included in dialog.  I thought it was a no-name, clever way of attributing some words or thoughts to a character without having to include ‘s/he said’.  For example:

John scowled.  “I don’t agree with that!”

Julia continued to peel the onions.  “I know you don’t, but in your heart, you know I’m right.”

In the April issue of The Florida Writer, Mary Ann de Stefano, the editor, gave a one-page lecture on the use of beats.

Mary Ann de Stefano

She said:  “The way you handle beats can enliven a scene when they reflect a character’s emotions and desires in fresh ways or dull your writing when they are used in a rote manner.” She suggested the following six tests of a writer’s use of beats:

  1. How often do you break up your dialogue with beats?  Do you sprinkle beats or lay them on with a heavy hand?  Too many beats can make dialogue unnecessarily busy, negatively affecting pacing, and overshadow the character’s speech.  On the other hand, no beats at all might make the reader feel she is experiencing disembodied voices floating in space.
  2. What is the effect of beat placements or long vs short beats?  A long beat could delay a character’s response and make her seem to hesitate without actually having to state that she was reluctant to answer.  Short beats or no beats can speed up a scene.
  3. Does the action beat come out of the character’s need – or the author’s?  If your character is going to get up out of her chair and move around the room, she needs to do it for reasons arising naturally from what is taking place in the scene, not merely because the author needs to break up the dialogue or attribute a piece of speech.
  4. Do you use the same beats repeatedly? Do your characters frequently pause, nod, shake their head, stare, shrug, glance, grin, smile, chuckle, laugh, wince, raise eyebrows, blink, tear up or sigh?  Please tell them to stop.  Any repetition in your work, unless carefully and consciously done well for effect, can be boring.
  5. Are your beats fresh?  Early drafts are often full of clichés, because pat phrases come to us easily.  Think of clichés as place markers, and root them out or replace them in revision.  Are your characters merely dialling phones, lighting cigarettes, inhaling or exhaling, looking out windows, or doing similar routine things that anyone could do anywhere?  Stale beats can sap the energy form your writing.
  6. Do your beats reveal character or advance your story?  Write beats that are specific to your characters and their circumstances.  Generic beats are missed opportunities.  A well-written beat is  meaningful.  It can betray a deception, convey an unspoken understanding, or reveal an emotion or character trait.  Beats can show us the scene’s setting, build tension, create suspense, or provide comic relief.  Put them to work.