Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Under the Knife

Prescriptions for writing abound. “Eliminate repeated words.” “Never write a boring sentence.” These come from the Gordon Lish school of writing via n+1. In the Lish arena, the student would be asked to read their piece aloud until they came to a boring sentence--called out by the master with great mocking fanfare, undoubtedly--and the student would be forced to sit down.

In my fiction, I was eliminating repeated words because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Also, I had an editor once return a story with repeated words circled. As for never writing boring sentences, it’s never easy. Of course you can hold up these ideas to the point that you lose the sense of the writing, if you had it to begin with.

And that seems to be a prescription, too, to be clear about what you are going to write before you begin.

Another good idea might be to eliminate as many words as possible--I’m not talking about repeated words, but excess words--avoiding wordiness. Maybe you pare it down and rewrite it a few times. I’ve sometimes shied away from this procedure, if only because a first draft sometimes has a rhythm inherent in the linkage of sentences as written. Perhaps even a poetry.

Why is it that poetry is so often invoked in fiction writing--what does it mean exactly? I suspect I have a bias against poets because they can be so precious about their work, romanticizing their little gulag. Poetry is rarely exciting, to me. Poets seem like the martyrs of the writing universe.

Yet, I like poetry in fiction, if I understand it correctly.

What does it mean to say a fiction writer’s writing is poetic?

I look at E. L. Doctorow, because I’m reading Loon Lake at the moment. Besides the actual use of a kind of verse in the novel (although I’m not sure if it’s bona fide verse, in the sense that it’s made up for a fictional work), here is a passage that I would say is poetic:

“They were hateful presences in me. Like a little old couple in the woods, all alone for each other, the son only a whim of fate. It was their lousy little house, they never let me forget that. They lived on a linoleum terrain and sat in the evening by their radio. What were they expecting to hear? If I came in early I distracted them, if I came in late I enraged them, it was my life they resented, the juicy fullness of being they couldn’t abide...”

This also happens to be the opening to the novel. Which is where you are going to notice poetry and in a sniff decide if this is a book you should read, should a reading of such be your thing.

It’s not a fellow writer’s thing. He occasionally laments how writing is literary or maybe that’s too literary because he believes he is secretly a blockbuster writer who has a commitment to providing airport fiction as he sees this as the only way to break in to publishing.

I don’t get it. Those airport reads bore me. But I’ll also admit that sometimes the literary stuff bores me, too. The problem with those (non-literary) books is that there’s no love of language. Maybe there’s a bit of craft in storytelling--there would have to be, it seems--but generally the work feels mired in a lack of spirit.

Getting back to revision...How do these approaches necessarily lead to good prose?

The Lish school as I’m calling it seems to approach the writing on the level of sentence and word choice, which is fine, but what happens when you need to stretch your legs--which is where all good fiction should inevitably go? (this can be argued, and I’ll shortly contradict myself...) I think of this because another writer who I’ve been looking into again lately (leave it to the NYTimes to get me to dust off my shelves), Donald Barthelme, seems to write in this style that Cheever had a hilarious comment on (“The stuntiness of Barthelme disconcerts me. . . . Blooey. It’s like the last act in vaudeville and anyhow it seems to me that I did it fifteen years ago” (this in the Bookforum review of Cheever's ouevre)). What is it about this style that feels like McSweeney’s co-opted as if it were a province of their (some might say) elitist identity? I think this is what we talk about when we talk about being clever. It’s whatever no one gets, or gets in only their way, but that a clever writer can imitate enough so that only a select few think they get it. So many journals claim and decry cleverness in equal measure, that it ruins it for those writers of us who don’t necessarily look at what we do as trying to be clever; maybe that’s the point, that if you actually are good at what you do, not everyone is going to get it. They’re only going to see you as a wannabe... Maybe I’m hypocritically doing the same thing criticizing McSweeney’s.

I never thought of “Seven Dreams Under the Knife” as clever. I had a woman run away from me when she read it. (How’s that for intrigue?) But this is also a woman who had plastic plants and scant aesthetic taste and thought my minimally appointed rooms here in the Mission resembled Van Gogh’s room at Arles. Initially, I was flattered by these revelations; upon reflection, I’m guessing that it was a perception of “cleverness” dogging me.

Maybe I could have stretched my legs on that piece, but after all the prescriptions about revision, I considered it done. I saw it as a gem that I didn’t want to do anything more with than see published. Which, however humbly, it is, finally.


  1. It is the poetry of language that allows for more than the denotative meaning to be conveyed in literature. The rhythm of the words, the use of precise verbs for the added emphasis those verbs bring, the magisterial representation of beauty through the simple sound of the words are all what require a poet's ear in certain literary works. And sometimes it is simply the lyrical nature of the locution that resonates within our fragile beings that make literary works so much more than airport fiction. Though I have nothing against Stephen King. Of course, as usual, I could be full of shit.

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