The Art of Writing Less

Write less, say more, this could also have been called. It’s a point people made in various ways about my recent blog on Hemingway’s shortest story – that sometimes the art with writing is to write economically.

It’s something Raymond Carver, the peerless short story writer, knew well. Cutting and cutting at his drafts until he found the heart of a story – often with the help of his editor Gordon Lish. Carver, incidentally, hated to be called a minimalist – he thought it implied a lack of ambition or attainment. What he was, he said, was precise. And that’s something I try to be when I am writing. I aim, in the end, to find the one right word, rather than three which are close.

Often the way this editing process works is that you start with more words and then chip away at them. I like to compare this process to a sculptor chipping at a block of stone, or working with clay – finding the final form.

Here are a couple of examples I like of writers using just this process. Neither of them is a short story writer.

First there’s Leonard Cohen and his late period masterpiece Hallelujah. We’ll all have our favourite versions of this much covered song I’m guessing, but for my money you have to go a long way to beat the Jeff Buckley version which I think best encapsulates laughing Len’s intention that it should sound like a song about religion but really be a song about sex.

Anywho – assuming we’ve all heard one or other version of the song with its six or seven verses – it’s sobering to note that Leonard Cohen wrote more than 80 verses of this song before he settled on the ones which have become canonical.

Yes that’s not a misprint – 80 verses.

Here’s another example of an artist chipping away. The modernist poet Ezra Pound, not a very nice man, appalling political opinions, but he wrote some of the most beautiful poems in the language. One of these is my favourite haiku. Here it is:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The surprising truth is that, to get to this pure distillation of image and thought old Ezra started with no fewer than 30 lines – cutting them down to these 14 words. He called it Imagism – I’d call it hard work.

For the most part the reader doesn’t see the road the writer has taken to get to where he ends up. And why should they? What matters is the words on the page. But it’s interesting to note how many more of them there might have been.

What’s a genius?

I read a quote recently from departed literary legend John Updike. It read

“Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.”

Interesting what he’s saying there I think – and it runs against what many people might naturally feel. He’s suggesting I suppose that there is nothing ‘special’ about creativity. That it is something which can be accessed by anyone and in many different  settings.

That’s what I think too – but I’m not sure that it is the prevailing mood. There is a belief in society that creativity in the arts is different and that it can be something almost supernatural. That a poet, for example – is someone who wanders around on hillsides with a furrowed brow and a back pocket full of daffodils waiting for inspiration to strike.

It’s true that certain environments help you access your creativity of course, and if hillsides and daffodils do it for you then please be my guest – it’s about creating a state of mind.

The notion that there’s something more to it – something outside of ourselves, can be traced I think to Romanticism. All those brooding Romantic poets with their belief in strong emotion as an aesthetic force. I mean just look at the picture below – need I say more?

That’s Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 – and doesn’t it just sum up the mood?

The whole concept of ‘Genius’ was tied up with this as well. Bach, for example, was not considered a genius during his lifetime. The concept was not in currency in his time. He was considered a master of his craft who, through a combination of talent, and hard work, had achieved wonderful things. Beethoven, by contrast, was a genius. He lived bang in the middle of the Romantic period – so his combination of hard work and talent was given a different name.

Long story short

427px-Ernest_Hemingway_1950_cropChallenged to write a short story in just ten words Ernest Hemingway managed it in six. His story read:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

He later said it was the best thing he’d ever written.

And there is a skill of course in brevity. It’s a lesson you learn in newspaper journalism, where space is at a premium. Writing a good News In Brief is an art in itself, as is a tight story intro. They can become quite poetic in the right hands

The legendary newspaper editor Harold Evans offers up a cracking intro in his book Newsman’s English. His example, from the New York Sun, reads:

Chicago, Oct 31: James Wilson lighted a cigarette while bathing his feet in benzine. He may live.

Though not quite as compact as Hemingway’s shortest story it has the same function of carrying a whole world in a few words – of distilling the tale right down to its bare essentials.

That’s about it for today. A short blog this one – naturally.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Does your book have a soundtrack?

Here’s another music related issue which is important to me as a writer – the soundtrack to whatever I’m writing.

If I write a book – and I’ve written three – there’s a soundtrack which goes with it.

I mean a running order of songs – I’ve worked it out, written it down, changed the order – refined it until I’m happy with it. Is this geeky? I’m worried this might be coming off a bit geeky.

Anyway – I do it for a reason, so don’t judge me. I do it because it gives me a feel of what the book’s about. It’s another creative direction you can take your story in. A way of opening another window into the world you’re creating. It’s fun too of course – and a new way of approaching music – not simply ‘Do I like this or not?’ but ‘Does this fit? Is this right?’

The soundtrack could be made up of songs the characters might like or listen to – but it’s also likely to be about creating a mood – a feel. If the book could tell its story in sound then this is what it would say.

I don’t necessarily listen to the play list when I’m writing the book – it’s more a companion to the finished article – something a reader could listen to.

Song of the Sea God has its soundtrack of course – and maybe once the book’s out there, and enough people have read it to make it worthwhile, I might publish the soundtrack on the blog for people to alter and add to.

Music while you work

First of two blogs on ‘music while you’re writing’ this. I was inspired, if that’s not too high-falutin a word, to write about this one by a conversation I had on twitter with fellow writers about what music to listen to when they write.

What do you listen to? I asked ’em. One replied, tongue in cheek: “the music of my soul” another said her writing is powered by heavy guitary girl rock such as the Breeders – which fuel her feisty female characters. People suggested Nick Drake, The Stones, Mozart.

Others said – no, just quiet – it’s all or nothing, writing. Many writers I suspect, feel like this. They don’t listen to music as it can be a distraction – you get into a kind of zone when you write where time passes differently. It’s an important place that zone – you don’t always find it and if music helps you get there you will use it, if it doesn’t, you won’t.

With me it depends what side I got out of bed. Sometimes I appreciate silence – other times sounds. If I do listen to music it has to be something where there are no lyrics, or where the singing is buried in the background. Otherwise I find the words of the song tear my attention away from the words I’m tapping onto the electronic page or scribbling into my notebook. So music with interesting and involving lyrics is a particularly bad idea. No Nick Drake for me then – or Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Elvis Costello – no to any singer songwriters really.

Something purely instrumental like classical music or jazz is favourite – but there are bands too where the lyrics don’t really intrude. Songs sung in a language you don’t understand, for example – and for me that’s any language other than English. Sigur Rós then, erm (tries to think of other examples).

Plus, some bands have a language of their own – the Cocteau Twins for example, remember them? everybody loved ‘em, no-one knew what on earth they were on about. They provide great writing music. Early REM – same kind of a deal.

I’m sure there’s lots more examples.

Dance music also does the trick – but that raises another issue. Sometimes the mood of the music is important too. It’s emotion lotion music isn’t it? The sound of it changes the way you feel as surely as a cocktail of chemicals.

So if your aim is to be a modern-day Kafka there’s no point listening to something that’s going to have you dancing round the desk.

It’s hard work finding the right music to suit the mood – I’m surprised I find time to do any actual writing.