How I write – Giovanni Bonello
by Marie Benoit
Let me say from the outset that I do not count myself a writer. Yes, I write up plenty of human rights law and the results of my safaris through the archives, but that hardly turns me into an author. As I see it, writers place the creation of good literature as their topmost priority. For me, word-skills only represent a tool for showcasing history and human rights law. So far I have published 17 books, but never one single page of “literature”. As for poetry, I allow myself the indiscretion of sharing with the public a maximum of four lines a year, and that only when I feel irrepressibly extrovert. Anything over that limit, and I start denouncing myself as an arrant flasher. For “creative” literature caterers, words form the anatomy; for me they are merely the clothes.
Limiting myself to my historical essays, I confess I have imposed on myself a rigorous “social” agenda. What I write I want to be as exhaustively researched as possible, but also accessible, and hopefully gripping, to inquisitive sunbathers leafing though the Sunday papers between a slice of hobz bil-kunserva and a rub of factor 22. These darlings are my prey, my ambition, my target audience; those who make me feel more of a democrat. I loathe anything written by professors for professors.
Generally I do not choose my subject; rather, I allow a subject to choose me. I prefer not working à la carte, not selecting beforehand a predetermined subject to research. Mostly my method and my output rely on the rather capricious affections of chance. I spend what time I can spare in the archives, going through manuscript volumes quite haphazardly, and jotting down anything likely to have potential.
Over the years, these random notes pile up and, once in a while, I comb through stacks of ill-assorted papers to identify which specific subjects I have harvested considerable information on: castrati singers, duelling, women knights, the Order’s contribution to the Maltese language or to drug abuse, sexual diversity, whatever. Once I judge I have enough material to kick-start a specific essay, I then concentrate on that one topic and scout around for sources likely to yield more hits relevant to that subject. Fifty years’ familiarity with the archives here – call it experience if bombast has its attractions – helps. So does luck, but promise not to spread that around.
Size counts. I admire those who can write more and more about less and less. I am not that gifted. I can only write less, and then less – period. Anything over a dozen pages, and I start losing interest vigorously, craving to latch on to something new – the twelfth-page itch, perhaps? This, admittedly, is a failing, one which Dr Alfred Sant brought up with me more than once: why do I not frequent vaster, more ambitious spaces? I think I can shelter behind some obliging answers. I do not believe the time is ripe to tackle broadband histories of Malta. Before much more micro-history falls in place, it would be premature and presumptuous to aim at macro-histories. And, secondly, the horizons of intellectual creativity have space enough both for Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, and for Holbein’s miniatures. Much as I respect Buonarroti, I find myself more complicit with the latter.
And a few canons of writing which I myself attempt to respect religiously. Never use a longer word when a shorter one will do, or an elite phrase when a household one serves the same purpose. Immerse yourself passively in a stream of sub-consciousness, but then go through your writing, deleting at least two-thirds of those auxiliary verbs that drop negligently from a lazy pen: is, was, are, am, have, were. Anything over a sparse sprinkling of these tends to give prose all the infelicity of childishness without any of the charms of innocence.
Whatever you write, try to put away for as long as possible, fighting back any temptation to revert to it before the consolations of oblivion start overtaking it. When you then return to your script, it will be from a more detached, impersonal standpoint. Proceeding with a revision, you can then react to your prose much as a third person would. Ask yourself relentlessly not what you can add, but what can you remove. Worship clarity: your writing is your thinking. Those who write opaquely or inconsequentially advertise inconsequential or opaque minds. And never, ever, be shy to succumb to the irresistible magic of the evanescent word.
That, at least, is how I go about it. If self-respect means anything to you, make sure you do the opposite.