Thursday, 15 January 2009


Can't remember the first time I heard/read this maxim, but needless to say I doubted much of its wisdom, which goes something like: If you write something, step back, read it and think 'Wow, that's good. Boy, I've nailed that, oh yes' should instantly bin it. What! That can't be right. Long sweaty hours, well minutes, composing prose that's near sublime...and I'm supposed to ditch it. And for years, I didn't. Editors, friends, publishers would (mostly) politely suggest a phrase, sentence, occassionally a paragraph should, not be re-written, but put entirely out of its misery. The argument being if the much adored words provoke some sense of vanity, indulgence or smug pleasure in the writer, then it has little to do with strengthening the writing.

At the risk of eliciting deserved derision, I'll give you an example. Feeling a description lacked a certain poetic nuance, I (many years ago, I'll add) came up with the following: The vista ahead was soon sullied by the incongruous metallic structure that had passed him earlier. This may not have been a 'darling' as such, but the purpose is served. Today that line reads: Ahead, in the lay-by, the car was parked.

The former is all about writing something for me - 'literary masturbation' I like to call it. It's a phase most beginners go through (though I doubt Carver ever did), and goes hand in hand with cramming in adverbs and adjectives ad nauseam. Okay, occasionally I write something now and think it works, that it does the job I want, but I'm never entirely satisfied with it. It could always be better. Edit down. Cull. Be brutal. And, yes, murder. Thoughts?


Jack Harris said...

It was a famous quote of William Faulkner by the way.I first heard it from Anthony Caleshu but you may know it from way back.

Jane Smith said...

I do like your revised version of the lay-by/car was parked phrase much better than the somewhat overwraught original. But am I the only person who shuddered on reading this?

"'literary masturbation' ... goes hand in hand with cramming in adverbs ..."

I do hope that whoever it was at least washed his hands before getting on to those adverbs.

I'll get my coat.

TOM J VOWLER said...

I have it on good authority, Jane, that hands were washed!

Jane Smith said...

That makes me feel a little better, but I'm not sure I'm ever going to be able to shake your hand...!

I'll stop it now.

(word verification for this post: "moister", oh, god.)

TOM J VOWLER said...

I'll wear gloves, Jane.

(Damn, I never get any amusing verification words.)

Anonymous said...

see tom and jane do it. phipses out. - <3 misvisions