sixth talk: plain and fancy


Hemingway famously said that “the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, bullshit detector.” It took me a long long time to figure out that the bullshit he was referring to was the writer’s own.

There’s one assertion about fiction that I will not yield on: writing is for the purpose of communication, not study. Study of literature is a secondary activity just like the study of houses. The first purpose of a house is shelter, and the first purpose of fiction is to tell a story to a reader. If your primary motivation for writing is to insure that future English Lit seminars will be impressed by the system of symbolism you so skillfully employed, you are not doing your job and the likelihood of your getting published is low. We write to be read. We write to make a story explode in the imagination of another person. All the tools available to a write must serve that purpose or they are as useless as a beautiful home that doesn’t keep the rain out.

This is sometimes a difficult concept to understand because mostly the way we encounter literature is through study. This creates a weird situation which is well-skewered by Dale Peck in the quote that I have included on the message boards. Thus, Vonnegut is not considered a literary writer and Joyce is. Thus, if Dickens were writing today – and not validated by all those years of crusty scholarship – we might be little ashamed of liking him so much. In the way, let’s say, that some people won’t admit to loving an enthusiastic crowd-pleaser like John Irving. Sometimes, after years of study, it’s the hardest thing in the world to separate what I call the “reading” experience from the “literary” experience. Now, I’m not trying to make a point about what we should or should not be reading – you can read the dictionary, for all I care. Rather, I’m trying to make a point about WRITING. It’s very difficult to be a good writer (let’s not even talk about a great writer) if you are routinely dishonest about your experience of reading. If you say that you enjoyed reading a book, for instance, when what you really enjoyed was sitting around and taking it apart with your friends. There’s nothing wrong with literary discussion – it’s probably one of the greatest pleasures in my life – but it’s not the same thing as communication. When my friends and I get going, we can have great literary conversation about the telephone book, but that doesn’t make the telephone book an effective piece of writing.

This is a sacred cow for many people. As American literature dies on the vine, they want to defend the rights of books to be boring, stupid, and vain. God bless them: I think the world needs boring, stupid, and vain books. They keep a lot of people busy who might otherwise be causing real trouble. What I’m concerned about here is the ability of everyone in this course to write effectively, and you just can’t write effectively if you’re not trying to communicate.

That expensive metaphor that you spent three hours perfecting? If it doesn’t serve the story, toss it out. Your brilliant lecture on the Patriot Act? Is it a support to the structure of your story or just a fine piece of writing? If it’s just a fine piece of writing, delete that, too. A British writer whose name I can’t remember warned us all to “murder our darlings” which I have always translated to “kill your babies.” If you adore something that you wrote, the way you would a child, chances are good that that you’re writing for approval rather than communication. I can still quote some of the paragraphs I’ve cut from stories and novels. They were, in fact, some of the best paragraphs I’ve ever written.

One activity that I find is a great tonic for the disease that Vonnegut called “literature disappearing up its own asshole” is what I call “recopying.” When I want to understand a section of prose (or poetry or drama) beyond all the cant and public relations, I type it up. I have a whole file in my computer that is nothing but novels and stories and essays that I have typed up to get a better idea of how they work. I do this sometimes to my own work, too. When I’m uncertain about the value of a sentence or paragraph, there’s often nothing better than running it through my fingers a few times: the stuff that doesn’t serve the story starts to nauseate me.

I believe this exercise works so well because it renders the work as merely what it is: words and sentences and paragraphs. I have typed into my computer entire novels when, for example, I wanted to get a deep understanding of a certain writer’s accomplishment. I like to have one “recopying” going while I’m writing something major. For the novel that I, knock on wood, just finished, I retyped The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, but I stopped at about thirty six thousand words. I like to work on books I think are brilliant, but maybe not too brilliant. I hope that some of the DNA of the work I’m recopying will seep into my fingers and transfer to the work I’m writing. The least of what this process does for me is constantly remind me of the simplest building blocks of fiction, the kind of things that I might rush over in order to get to bigger and mightier effects. I notice, for example, that even in the most seemingly “complex” work, the sentences themselves are pretty simple. I notice that a chapter that goes beyond 1500 words if often hard to keep in my head. And I notice most of all – and maybe this is the MOST important thing – that the English language that I’m writing in is the same English language that my heroes have written in.

Let me just be honest: I’m not in favor of anyone writing fancy. I think we should always write plain. The only justification for what I’m calling “fancy” writing is when the “fancy” writing actually is plain writing. For example, there are some messages that require vastly complicated metaphors and footnotes that take up half the page. My point is this: great writing is ALWAYS self-effacing. If I’m thinking about the author while I read – how good she is, what a great turn of phrase that was – then the work is, by my definition, NOT great writing. The story is about David Copperfield, not Charles Dickens. Nobody even knows who Homer was, and they’re beginning to wonder if he himself might have been a fiction.

The greatest thing we can aspire to as writers is to be forgotten within the experience of our own work.


Leave a Reply