#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.