Sunday, May 18, 2014

negative work

Murder your darlings.

-- Arthur Quiller-Couch, "On Style," Cambridge lectures 1914

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

-- attr. Michelangelo

When I worked in an art called theatre, I would pray please god don't send me on stage with any nice guys. Let me go into action with the shameless: you can count on them to do what's necessary at the moment it must be done.

Artists may be kind, but Art is cruel. Writing is cruel, if you're doing it for the writing. Writing is rewriting, they all say. The ancient advice from writers to those who would be is to kill babies. Put your beauty on the page and rip its heart out.

It's negative work, like sculpture. There's a pile of words and concealed in it is something worth reading. So hack off the blubber.  Excise everything you can and what's left, if it still breathes, is what you just realized you meant to say.

It's like music - if you're going to get there you have to get there now. Don't justify yourself - it makes you late. The right note at the wrong time is a wreck, and the right word at the wrong time is a disgrace: there you are with your dozen roses and she's run off with the other guy. So don't waste time.

No mercy. No reverence for good intentions, for what's expected, or what you think may be expected, or what you thought you meant to do. No compassion for stragglers; explanation only makes your journey more obscure. You might get lost. You might get hurt. You might die. But if you miss the tide, your voyage sticks in shallows and in miseries.

I do this for the writing.

That sounds pompous.

The actor Peter Siragusa, with whom I once worked, protested the thought that his career was an obscure one. "Obscure! I'll have to climb several rungs up the ladder before I'll deserve to be called 'obscure'!"

So I, who toil in what hardly measures up to "obscurity," say merely as a fact that I do this for the writing. That is the hygiene here practiced. I don't do this to save the world, to satisfy an entrance requirement, to win the approval of a committee or to complete a curriculum.

I hack away at my pile of words until it looks like something has been found in it alive and then, if god gives me good sense on that day, I quit. It's bloody work, a butchery to which I am addicted. I throw away mounds of flesh. I love throwing things away: it feels like victory.

There are other things to write for than writing, but if you're writing for the writing, you do things that you might not otherwise do.

First rule: brevity is, as a tedious fool once said, the soul of wit. So if you can take out a sentence, a phrase, a word, a letter without the house of cards collapsing - you should take it out. All that other stuff, all that explanation and explication and illustration and deprecation, was just getting in the way.

Second rule: the thing has more power than the idea. A proverb says the "pen is mightier than the sword," and that's better writing than "ideas can bring down governments."

Third rule: action takes precedence over abstraction.  "We shook hands" is better than "we made peace."

If you follow these rules religiously, you risk a certain divergence from the truth. Depending on the situation, that divergence may be more important or less so, it's for you to judge. But you must also decide what you mean by truth. If you write for the sake of writing, then it's the truth of writing that is of greatest price. Writing's truth is not what it says but what it does. There never was a Pequod or an Ishmael, but the tale he told to Melville has not finished its run.

I've dramatized myself again, so let me make it clear that I'm a purveyor of small fry and shall not hoist any white whales from my abbatoir. This is just a game I play and need to play, and every now and then I'm informed there are a few others willing to follow along.

Some friends suggest an alternative to the questions I posed last week, and I am flattered by their attention. I proposed that the one and only religious question is: "what is worth dying for?" They would prefer "what is worth living for?" It's hard to argue against them.

I had posed myself, for the sake of writing, a cruel assignment - naming a single question. It's like an assignment I used to give to theatre students: in one sentence (not a compound sentence) what happens in this play? this scene? All sorts of things could be said to happen in for instance Hamlet, but what are you going to make happen? Choose and you have a chance to be remembered - or you can be kind to everybody and wallow in oatmeal.

Both of the questions I posed imply other questions, and those questions could have been the basis of a conversation.

I said that the one and only scientific question is: "how do things generally work?" But the best answers to that question lead us to another question often asked of scientists - "how did it all begin?" It's not possible these days to speak deeply of how things generally work without telling the origin story called Big Bang, and that is what Tyson does. Science of the present day speaks about the general laws only with reference to a singular event, a miracle if you will -- though Dr. Broun apparently can't see the miracle in it. The greatest mystery of all, before which Tyson avowedly flummoxes, is "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

And it's hard to answer the religious question of "what is worth dying for?" without entering the companion question of what one lives for. They're not quite the same question but can often stand in for each other. If you were to get up from your chair this moment and keel over dead, without knowing what hit you, you would have died for exactly what you lived for. For some this may be an appalling thought, and we all know some people for whom the thought is not as appalling as it should be. Though for others of us this would be a fortunate outcome, most would serve themselves well by considering the sum total of their lives at regular intervals: if I died right now, what would I have died for? Making death present to ourselves, as Dr. Johnson reminded us, is a strong way to concentrate the mental and moral faculties. It is possible, by thought and criticism and courage, to die for something other than what one lived for, or to change the composition of one's living.

As a rhetorician I preferred the more shocking question. Asking people to think about their dying concentrates the mind. Perhaps that is why our late most famous minister Forrest Church used to say that "religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." Perhaps that very concentration of the heart and mind, that particular way each of us tightens the breath and the sphincter, is our faith.

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