Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Simplicity for Simpletons

This morning I'm pondering how writers avoid overwriting. I've been reading Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, and while I'm struck with the weight of the ideas, I'm almost more enthralled by the simplicity with which he presents them. Simplicity is such a misleading term, in general but especially when referring to writing. I guess what I mean by simplicity is saying what needs to be said, communicating, in short, in the most precise yet meaningful way.

It seems that it's so much easier to err on the side of too much writing, garrulous word diarrhea. Overwriting is blatant, a flagrant foul against the sensibilities. I just don't understand how the best writers slim down their verbiage to create that stark impression of sweet simplicity. "Let the club do the work," I was always told when trying, and failing, to develop a solid golf swing. Well, just as I try to knock that little dimpled sphere screaming out of the park every time (ouch mixed sports metaphor), so too I find it so tempting to use more words than less to say what I need to say.

Take "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by Thomas Sterns Eliot (T.S., to the uninitiated), for example. It's so "simple" that it seems like anyone could have written it. Of course, not just anyone did, which opens up the huge snarly gnarly debate about whether a work of art is good because it has merit somehow in and of itself or only because it was created by someone we have attributed cultural value to as being an artist who creates great art. Anyways, my point is - how did he do it, and others? How does one show restraint in the written word?

But all this is not to say that you can't be ornate and simple at the same time. Faulkner miraculously achieves this, and of course Henry James (I can't speak on Joyce - full disclosure - I've never read Ulysses). There's a balance somewhere in there that I can only point to as existing but can't really hope to describe. Somehow the layers upon layers of detail and description and probing inner worlds do not take away from the overall sense of simplicity they impart.

Perhaps I'm thinking of simplicity in terms of wholeness, a unity, a measured evenness that is consistent throughout and gives the impression that everything is in the right place, that everything belongs. Overwriting sticks out, stabs the mind, feels out of place.

Anyways, here's to those great artists who say what they say and do what they do and write what they write and do not overwrite for the sake of overwriting and keep things simple and always are true to their vision and never affront the reader by saying too much or too little but just say enough.

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