Verlyn Klinkenborg and Creative Destruction

July 25, 2018 § 9 Comments


zz_amosBy Peter Amos

I tried to read David Foster Wallace again. I also have a college friend who listens to Paganini for pleasure, a cousin who likes fried egg on his bacon cheeseburger, and a coworker who swears by the ‘cronut.’ Wallace mania is similar. I have nothing against him. It’s just a little much for me. I’m more the type for Palestrina, red onion and swiss, or sesame with butter (coffee light and sweet).

My favorite writers rotate daily, but Joan Didion and George Orwell border on obsession. I want to write like they do. I love plain language. Simple sentences sparkle with magic, no matter the complexity of the idea. Orwell never uses two words when one will do. Miles Davis moves blocks of silence around. Brevity is, in point of fact, a byproduct of vigor. The obvious problem is that I’m long-winded. The deeper problem is that I’m bad at editing.

My dad is an English teacher and suggested I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing. It’s a bizarre little book, alternately cryptic and remarkably direct. To Klinkenborg, the sentence is foundational. Creative vocabulary languishes in a shoddy sentence. Tricks of the trade bend and buckle when the glue is weak. He suggests writing only sentences; not grouping them in paragraphs, but treating each separately. He forms them mentally, editing in real time and revising out of order and context. If a sentence stumbles without its neighbor, it has no business on the page.

I’ve tried my hand at burning dinner, juggling a soccer ball, and separating the roots of baby tomato plants. The secret to getting better is often learning to enjoy the task. Enjoying it often requires getting better. It’s circular, but generally true. If I enjoy what I do, I’ll improve a bit and enjoy it more. If I grit my teeth and get better, I’ll have fun and the improvement accelerates.

I got a bit better at editing and it’s extraordinarily satisfying. I delete the painfully clever sentence that doesn’t quite fit and I never look back. As I strip out the dust and refuse, the thing changes meaning. It’s like carving the form of a bird’s nest from a block of wood and sanding it into the shape of a mockingjay. In general, it’s no surprise that a bird hides in a nest but it feels like sorcery.

Of course editing is a thing you do, and work evolves. But I’ve always thought that adding words changed meaning and removing them clarified what was already there. Maybe there’s no difference. Some critics argue that art is what it is; words are words and color is color. Klinkenborg puts it differently. Meaning can’t be separated from the words. A bird is a bird regardless of the metal that makes the cage. But writers don’t capture an idea under a crosshatch of letters and spaces. Not just any word will do. The words are the idea and when I change them, even slightly, the meaning changes too. A verbal uncertainty principle. I can’t paraphrase an idea without changing it.

It sounds like voodoo until a draft lies in scraps on the parquet floor. I pluck a word from a sentence, trade a weak clause for something compact, and shrug. Three times, five times, ten times, a hundred and I’m staring at an idea I never noticed rattling around in my head. What remains is unfamiliar.
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Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia.  The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.

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§ 9 Responses to Verlyn Klinkenborg and Creative Destruction

  • “The secret to getting better is often learning to enjoy the task. Enjoying it often requires getting better. It’s circular, but generally true.” This is a lovely essay, in every sentence true.

  • DavidWBerner says:

    Great post. The art of finding what it is you REALLY want to say as one adds and minuses words. It is the delight of “finding out.”

    • Peter says:

      Thank you David. It’s really interesting the way that trimming out excess words can clarify for the writer as much as for the reader. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Stuart rose says:

    Klinkenborg is excellent as triage for bad writers and as a refresher on basics for good writers. Actually, for young inept writers the book is often too damn cryptic. But he lays down some commandments about writing I’ve found helpful to commit to memory. His claim that long sentences only work if they’re complected of good strong short ones comes to mind.

    A fine essay, Peter. I don’t share your alienation from Walllace’s writing, but do agree that there’s usually more to be cut in our drafts than added.

    • Peter says:

      Not sure I’m with you on the Klinkenborg but it’s definitely is cryptic.

      I also think it’s important to note that Paganini was a genius, whoever first put eggs and bacon together on top of a hamburger probably deserves a trophy, and the cronut is revolutionary even while I personally think they’re all a little much. David Foster Wallace was briliant. Just not my thing.

      I really appreciate you reading and taking the time to comment. Thank you for the kind words!

  • I’ve always been a slow reader, and I firmly agree that sometimes the flowery, prose-like sentences distract me from the gist of the story, but they should not all be bullet points. I edited this message three times already. Also, I wish I could write like Joan Didion and/or Anne Lamott.

    • Peter says:

      I totally get that! I think it’s more that a sentence be long because it needs to be rather than because it can be. Even substituting a single longer word for a several shorter words may not shorten a sentence but you end up with a more precise powerful word and a better sentence no matter the length.

      Nobody could possibly eliminate every unnecessary word from a sentence so at some point it’s a matter of preference. I’d be off my nut to claim that Wallace was anything less than a genius even though I really am not a fan, personally. On the other hand, the dry choppiness of Joan Didion’s fiction drives people a wall, and I get that too even while she’s one of my two or three favorite writers of all time.

  • melinda says:

    Nice work here!

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