April 27, 2010


There was a great comment trail on my friend Brad Green’s Facebook page recently that started with his comment:

Who here believes a writer should cut all that they love from their book? Does anyone follow the "kill your darlings" method? How do you do this and not end up hating what you've done, or worse, being bored by it?

A fascinating writing discussion ensued.

But Brad said something that I really like but wanted to expand on. He said:

Taken baldly, how many words does it take to describe a sunny beach anyway? Two. All else is excess. However, this is a thing to which I don't subscribe. If that methodology worked for everything, just imagine the repercussions to foreplay! One can be marginally inefficient and clear at the same time. Beauty lies somewhere within that overlap. It takes as many words as it needs. Occasionally, the force of an image or metaphor needs to sprawl. Sometimes it contracts and it's sharp as a whip crack. Beauty conforms to context or it's not beautiful.

I love it ~ “just imagine the repercussions to foreplay!” And then, wow, “Beauty lies somewhere within that overlap.”

I wholeheartedy agree with what Brad says. The way something is worded is so specific to the individual situation and one can’t say that one pattern fits all, or even some. You need the sparity of Hemingway and you need the liquid precision of Woolf. You need David Foster Wallace’s almost claustrophobic attention to specificity to balance Annie Proulx’s smooth glide through vast periods of time.

But I wanted to talk a little bit about where this language comes from as we’re writing. I know that I’ve read lots of beautiful elegant prose that sings in rhythm but lies lifeless in meaning and impact. I was at a panel reading recently where all but one of the readers’ works were so real and honest and clear and their prose was so beautiful and meaningful. That one reader, though, was so in love with language that, though her prose had beautiful trills and bells and whistles, its meaning was so hard to decipher that it essentially had no impact. And the contrast with the other readers was stark.

So what I’m saying is that when I’m writing I don’t think the first concern should be the deliberate consideration of what metaphor to use here, of writerliness, of an imposed structure, of forcing this thing into this story or this story into this thing. I shouldn’t be thinking about that so much as the needs of the character and what’s happening in the story. Beautiful language will arise naturally, but organically in the composition more so than me trying to insert it or think it through. It often needs to arise from within, and I need to trust my unconscious for the powerful thing that it is.

As a caveat, though, I don’t discount the use of a metaphor or a structure or something writerly as an inspiration or guiding force. I just think I need to always be mindful of the actual story I’m writing ~ not what I want it to be ~ and to let it change and evolve.

My final thought about this: I think the aim should be clarity of expression, rather than beautiful words. There will be beautiful words if you are clear.

What I’m Reading Today: Yesterday, I stayed home with the rock-bottom flu. I felt as bad as I’ve felt in a long time over the weekend. Achy and head-achy, deep hacking coughs, blowing my nose all the time, bone-tired. Then yesterday I took a hot plumeria-scented bubble bath and read the short story “The Van Gogh Field” in William Kittredge’s Best Stories. That story. Something so beautiful and ineffable about it. The experience changed me and moved me and healed me and inspired me. I wanted to freeze time.

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