#1: At War with Clarity
It might seem anti-climactic to end these posts with a topic as simple as clear-writing, but this lesson encompasses those that preceded it. In fact, with little exaggeration, all the previous nine posts led straight to this one. Clarity does necessarily mean simplicity. It also does not mean strict realism or attempts to capture verisimilitude. Clarity in writing is not just how the writer conveys words but how he thinks about writing. It involves being clear and in control of what you are trying to say before you put pen to paper. It’s not always expressed on the page, but clarity must be discovered in the writer’s mind.
For most of my writing life, I’d been at war with clarity, which meant I’d been at war with my own mind.
Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that clarity was not a virtue in writing, but a sign of weakness. I wrote with a thesaurus at my side, convinced that if I up-armored my stories with big words and abstract characters, no one would notice the stumbling mess of structure and inept storytelling which those words tried to conceal. I didn’t realize that I was fighting a counterinsurgency against my own confusion and ignorance about the nature of good writing. All my attempts to gussy up my prose took me further and further away from the heart of a good story.
When I wrote a weak scene or if a chapter stalled out, rather than staying with it and thinking my way through (which demanded the hard work a writer must do), I would race back to some earlier part of the book and start blasting plain words off the page. I filled my stories with half-deranged characters speaking through hijacked, quasi-intelligences in the form of fuzzy characterization. I littered my pages with obscure allusions to even more obscure books. It’s fair to say that I sought confusion, hoping that it would pass as mystery or intrigue. These stories were destined to fail because with each escalation of vagueness, with each minefield of fancy rhetoric and symbolism, I crept further and further away from anything resembling a real story. I didn’t realize that the true enemy in these pitched battles was my inability to write a story.
And it felt like hard work, struggling as I imagined real writers struggled.
The truth was that I had no fucking clue what I was doing. But what I wouldn’t do, what I fought against tooth and nail, was being obvious. If someone reached for a dictionary to read my stories, then kudos to me! DG nicely summarizes this conundrum in his essay “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise.”
“The fear of being too obvious is a common failing of inexperienced short story writers. Excessive obliquity leads straight to the purgatory of vagueness…Students speckle their stories with symbols, clues and hints instead of saying what they mean and telling the reader how to read the story like real writers. They want to be interpreted (the effect of too many English literature classes) instead of being read.”
Because I didn’t know how to tell a story, I masked my ignorance with vague and abstract images. I thought that by using big words, and lots of them, I could camouflage the utter lack of a story.
Clarity meant simplicity, and any lunkhead could tell a simple story, I figured. Only an artistic lunkhead (like me) would spend hours looking for the perfect word.
I wrote like this for quite a while, even as I entered VCFA, where I encountered the terms ‘writerly prose’ and ‘over-written’ for the first time. Being told in my very first workshop in Montpelier that my scenes were ‘over-written’ felt, initially, like a compliment. Other students telling me they were confused by my stories only confirmed that I was doing it right, and that these buffoons were simply not smart enough to understand what I was writing. I really believed I was on the right track. I believed it for about twenty-four hours after workshop. Then I ran into a huge problem.
I started listening to these same students talk about writing. And they were smart. They knew a lot more about the craft of writing than I did. Then I went to lectures from grizzled old professors, who only moments before were slurping down root vegetable soup in the Dewey Hall cafeteria, and my confidence dwindled even more. Very quickly, I began to feel dumb. Within a few days, I questioned if I even belonged in an MFA program. These students and teachers who were confused by my writing seemed to know an awful lot more than I did. I had relied on my ability to piece fancy words together for so long that I was a little shocked that others weren’t impressed by it. In fact, they told me this approach didn’t work. Truth be told, on some level, I already knew it myself.
By the end of that first residency, I’d been sufficiently humbled to consider that perhaps the only buffoon in the program was me.
There are moments in life when a person must come face to face with his own ugliness, his own delusional sense of importance and virtue. January, 2009 was one such moment for me. The thing was, I kept writing that same way for a while. I still carried a thesaurus in my holster, armed and ready to shoot when the going got tough. I went back for my first semester and wrote the same way. I even continued into my second, but at least by then I had been taught enough about story structure and drama to believe in the process. Then I had DG as an advisor and all hell broke loose.
Doug preached the virtue of clarity to me from the opening bell. He made me believe that writing is a process of thinking, a process of sitting down and doing the hard working of understanding what it is that a writer is trying to say. Clarity does not dumb down a story. It means that the writer forms a perfect, clear picture in his mind before he tries to translate that image onto the page. Okay, that’s crap. Maybe it’s never perfect, and it’s seldom clear, but the goal is clarity. A writer must understand what he’s doing before he can hope to offer it up to readers.
The Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky speaks of ‘estrangement,’ the idea that art makes the familiar object reappear as strange. “By ‘estranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and laborious. The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest.” The mistake I had been making was one of order. When I started out, I believed that the ‘long and laborious’ work must be done by the reader. That’s not true, at least not primarily. The labor must be done by the writer. And clarity demands more work than vagueness.
I believe in clarity now. It’s damned hard to write clearly, to take the abstraction of an idea, think about it deeply, spin it around and around before converting into words. It takes patience and care to make those words into a story. I’m still learning.
Clarity can’t be achieved by carpet-bombing the page with eight dollar words and empty mouthpieces (characters) to say them. Clarity is a door-to-door campaign, a hearts-and-minds policy, won not by muscular prose and surface abstractions, but by truly engaging with, and overcoming, my own confusion about what I’m writing. Writing clearly means thinking clearly. It means understanding the problem, “What am I trying to say?” and then finding a way to say it.