The New York Journal of Books called Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s focused meditation on prose, the “best book on writing. Ever.”
That’s heavy praise when one considers the library that could be filled with good books on writing.
Tom Bissell does a fantastic job of chronicling many of those books on writing, making special note of the equal existence of less useful books on writing, in his essay Writing About Writing About Writing. This wonderful history of the writer’s how-to book, which appears in his collection, Magic Hours, is well worth the read as it ultimately questions if writing can, in fact, be taught.
I think writing can be taught, craft can be chiseled and tuned, refined, and even made beautiful. What often escapes modern teaching I believe, however, is the training (care and feeding?) of the imagination, and the far-too-often snuffed out talent of noticing.
In his massive opus, In Search of Lost Time, it was Proust’s noticing the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea that opened a deluge of sensory memories from his past, memories so profound that he was transported. He wrote,
I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.
Noticing provides the prima materia that ultimately catalyzes a writer’s prose. In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Klinkenborg suggests the same when he writes that—
Noticing is about letting yourself out into the world.
Rather than siphoning the world into you
In order to transmute it into words.
His use of the word transmute suggests an almost alchemical process that follows noticing. In its wake is clarity.
So what is noticing?
A pinpoint of awareness.
The detail that stands out amid all the details.
It’s catching your sleeve on the thorn of the thing you
And paying attention as you free yourself.
Klinkenborg is leading us to a critical point. The things we notice are the very things we must illuminate in prose. This isn’t bogging down in the details, but rather capturing the essence of things.
To get your words, your phrases,
As close as you can to the solidity,
The materiality of the world you’re noticing.
Solidity means writing without gaps, without separation between reader and what is read. It is a complete immersion in the fictive dream where writer and reader become one. Klinkenborg refers to this as conversing with “the voice on the other side of the ink.”
This requires trust.
Trusting the reader is a way of controlling
The temptation to over-narrate, over-describe, over-interpret, over-signify.
It lets the reader share the burden of comprehension.
This is part of the constant negotiation between writers and readers.
A good reader will follow a good writer where she goes,
And the good writer will do all she can to help.
Like Bissell, I’ve read my share of writing books. Some have nudged me forward as a writer, or offered some nugget of wisdom that has helped. That’s all we can ask for. The rest is up to us, as writers.
It’s up to us to notice. Our job is to write good sentences. And, if they’re not good, we have to know how to make them better. Klinkenborg has a few suggestions here as well:
So revise toward brevity—remove words instead of adding them.
Toward directness—language that isn’t evasive or periphrastic.
Toward simplicity—in construction and word choice.
Toward clarity—a constant lookout for ambiguity.
Toward rhythm—where it’s lacking.
Toward literalness—as an antidote to obscurity.
Toward implication—the silent utterance of your sentences.
Toward silence—leave some.
Toward the name of the world—yours to discover.
Toward presence—the quiet authority of your prose.
Verlyn Klinkenborg concludes the book with what I think is his best advice:
The way to keep going?
Never stop reading.
Say more than you thought you knew how to say
In sentences better than you ever imagined
For the reader who reads between the lines.
Is Several short sentences about writing the best book ever on writing? It certainly cuts a fresh swath in a dense, overgrown territory of books.
The conciseness of the writing, the insights, the form of the book, which breaks sentences and paragraphs into almost Koan-like groups, gives a contemplative quality to every line and every word.
I found myself savoring each section, ruminating on his observations with a reverence I haven’t experienced with other books on writing. In this way, the book delivers on its lofty praise.