Saturday, July 18, 2015

Less is More (Sometimes)

“Less is More” is a phrase most often associated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus school of minimalist design. The earliest use I can find lies buried in Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto.” Doubtless there are others because insofar as paradoxes are concerned, it’s a fairly easy construction: take an idea and put a form of “to be” between it and its opposite. As with many koanish phrases—and one that is self-demonstrating—it has become near and dear to proponents of any artistic craft.

Those who know me understand that it is a problematic phrase for me because I simply don’t believe in it. That is not a mere excuse to be a lazy writer and not edit, but as Dumas pointed out, “all generalizations are dangerous, including this one.” Most often, those who prefer minimalism will use it as a relentless razor, so that like Occam’s little cut-throat, it takes a life of its own beyond its original application.

In defense first: A simple thing is often the hardest to do. Le mot juste is often a difficult thing to find, and crowding it with verbose, often elephantine phrasing spells the death of much good prose. Unless it is about elephants, perhaps.

Additionally, over-doing any artistic endeavor, whether it is painting, writing, music or cooking, often serves as an unconscious cloak of mistakes. And then there is the problem of just leaving your mess around.

Many of the verbal qualifiers that we use in everyday speech are just that when you leave them in writing. Speaking of “just,” I understand it is a dirty word. It lies on a supposed dung heap of phrases along with “I feel that,” “Indications show,”  “Interestingly enough” and a legion of other “hedging” phrases. I disagree. With any maturity and brains a good listener will just glide over the phrases, the same way we barely pay attention to credits in a film. If you want to learn more, simply visit the wonderful Language Log to read about it. And remember, dung can also be valuable compost.

I like to think of these phrases as warming up. They get your tongue and brain moving and words are actually coming out of your mouth which is a good way to begin communicating. Do you start an automobile in gear? Of course you don’t. But once you have shifted from park or neutral, the rest of your thought follows along enough.

Many writers do the same thing, although it may not just be phrases but paragraphs and entire chapters that starts the literary car moving. One very dear friend of mine usually has to write three or four pages of prose to get to the interesting part, but she needed to do that to get there.

The great advantage of writing is, that unlike speech, you can revise it. Another metaphor comes from construction: does a concrete mason leave the forms up? Of course not. They serve their purpose in shaping the liquid material. Once it sets and cures, the forms can be stripped off and discarded.

Kristen Steenbeeke:
This removal of “language forms” is one of the main thing editors can help with in line editing, which is a refining of a writer’s particular style. As I mentioned elsewhere, editors are indispensable to the writer. Like any human relationship you need to find one that understands you because they will perform the miraculous feat of making your thoughts sound better.

Working with an editor is an ongoing process and dialogue. Write your heart out onto the paper in a bloody mess, but when you revise think of what your editor might say. After her work on The Nightingale’s Stone I can often hear Kristen Steenbeeke's sardonic voice: “you’re leaving that in?” I've learned to recognize my own phrases when they stumble across the page thanks to her pointing out previous examples. Writing is art, it is craft, but it is process and the more you write, revise, and pay attention, the easier it is to not “put needless words” in. Or chapters. (But you'll still need them to work on your text once your 'finished'!!)

However—and you knew that was coming—sometimes a mess can irrupt into stories with glory. I suspect that the fascination with minimalism has nothing to do with a priori “value” but is a historical trend that began with the Modernists and continues on to this day—refined in the craft workshops of MFA programs and ateliers of genre fiction.

I have grown to weary to count out how many exceptions I can list when I listen to a writer, editor, or even an agent declare their blessed Rules. Rather, I like to think of them trying to work with established, beloved works of literature.

Even though it stands as one of the most important foundation texts in fantasy, do you think any New York publisher would let The Lord of the Rings stand as written in this day, let alone bother to look at it at all? The Craft People would want the story to move and get rid of all that mucking about in the Shire, the Old Forest, and the Barrowdowns. And yet, as I grow older, that is my favorite part of the book. I don’t want to go to Mordor any more than Frodo does. I want to savor the landscapes, the walking pace, the earthenware jars full of flowers and water in the House of Tom Bombadil.

This is only one example. I am sure you have a few books on your shelf that have wonderfully long, irrelevant, over-written, distracting stretches of writing in them. They are precious and we writers buy them with great pain.

Be careful, is all I suggest. Remember that while "Less is More" may be apt, "More is More" remains tautologically correct as well.

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