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Editing vs Writing

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Imagine that you’re in a martial arts showdown against a practioner of some obscure Eastern training. Your opponent has been preparing all his life for this moment, honing his body and mind into animal-like grace. You’re just an average office-rat; maybe you go to the gym a few times a week. You are now in a jungle pagoda battling for your life.

Now, imagine time slows down. It takes a subjective minute for each of your punches to connect… it’s like the air became molasses. You have as much time as you need to study your opponent’s body position, feel the balance of your weight, correct your motion, and prepare your mind for impact. Suddenly, you’re not panicking anymore; the fear and adrenaline are out of the picture and you weigh your options like a chess player.

Let’s assume your opponent feels time normally. Let’s also give you the benefit of the doubt re: your athleticism; you can move, you can hit harder than a five year old. Now it’s your opponent who is in trouble. With an infinity to study each step, you react as though possessed with uncanny intuition. It’s Mr. Smith fighting Neo in the Matrix; Mr. Smith is screwed.

Writing is about inspiration; editing is about technique. The former seems mysterious and passionate whereas the latter is coldly analytical. An editor sees a text as a series of decisions, and the most skilled editor is the one who can articulate most precisely the pros and cons of each, whether that’s the placement of a comma, the grammar of a sentence, the choice of a word or a particular metaphor, or the omission or inclusion of a passage. There’s no magic to it; just refinement, adjustment, and frequent reference to Strunk and White.

There are many great editors who are not great writers. You cannot write the great American novel by writing a shitty American novel and then revising it until it is perfect. You can’t do that because perfect is optimization within constraints, whereas great is breaking through constraints to create new landmass out of thin air. Two entirely different goals, dictating entirely different exertions.

Nevertheless, different as they are, the two practices are intimately connected. You can imagine great writing as a great editor fighting the kung fu master in slow motion. With a subjective infinity to make each editorial decision, the objective appearance is a fluid stream of creation, giving the impression of mystery and magic. From the view of the time-slowed individual, though, it’s just a series of choices — which metaphor, what sequencing, which word — the same choices that editors critique and revisit after the fact.

If writing and editing involve the same decisions, that raises a puzzle. In a real fight you can’t slow time, but in writing, it does seem as if time is in fact frozen: at least, your word processor isn’t about to pick itself up and run. So why can’t you substitute editorial prowess and a lot of patience for great writing’s elusive special stuff?

The missing piece of the analogy is the opponent. You’re back in your jungle pagoda; time is frozen; but this time, you’re by yourself. Now an observer walking by doesn’t see a martial arts expert — if you try to do fancy kung fu footwork, you’ll just look stupid. It was your opponent who forced your reaction; raw necessity of survival drew the lines of efficiency that lent your movements grace. Absent something to react to, the lines aren’t there.

Call the thing that writers react to inspiration: a psychological or maybe spiritual necessity to express. Inspiration waxes and wanes, and as it flows one must react by choosing a vessel to fill with it. Nothing a human being can write in human language will ever fully do justice to the original urge. But you can do better or worse. Drops of intuition will always escape and spatter on the ground, but you can hold up a sieve, or you can hold up a cup, or you can hold up a jug. Time does not freeze for writers — you must make decisions, big decisions, about what form to choose, and after the fact you can correct certain choices but only up to a point — beyond that point you need a fresh stream of inspiration or else you will kill what you’re working on.

So like a real martial artist, a writer needs to learn to practice making decisions under pressure until good choices become intuitive rather than conscious. Editing ability helps with that, because the better you can critique your work, the less error your practice will introduce into your technique. It’s doing katas in front of a clear mirror instead of a cloudy one. But recognition of good is still completely seperate from ability to do.

The joy in this thought is that practicing is never-ending. It is a great thing to feel the surge of inspiration, frantically pour it onto paper, and even as you write, feel the inadequacy of your technique to do your impulse justice. That’s because you can never, no matter how good you are, capture all of an inspiration. Creative choices are discrete, whereas inspiration is continuous. Inadequacy and imperfection are in the very nature of life itself, and life’s blessing is that, being imperfect, there is always joy in getting better. My technique is a clumsy vessel — I feel how weak it is, how insubstantial my imagery, how heavy-handed my weaving of point and story, and that’s fine, the natural order of things. Water will always splash from my cup, and the splashing is good. And sometimes the cupping is pretty good too.

Written by jphaas

May 14th, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Posted in writing

And his name shall be “Awesome”

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Good writing is writing that conforms to Strunk & White’s dictum, “omit needless words; omit needless words; omit needless words”. Good writing is humble; authors say no more, no less than what it takes to make their point. This takes an element of courage, because authors must be willing to strip their message bare and expose it naked to the world.

Great writing is writing so humble that it folds back around and becomes arrogant. Great writing is fearless. My favorite writers project an almost obscene confidence, as if they are saying “yes, I understand that others use the English language that way, and now I choose to use it this way instead.” They use extra, needless words, and they use them because they damn well want to use them, and of course they could make it shorter but that wouldn’t be as fun.

Here are three examples:

Steven Pressfield argues in The War of Art that failing to act on one’s passions is the root of all suffering:

If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff.

Yes, that’s right, the cure for dandruff is pursuing your dreams. Man, think of all the money you could have saved on Head & Shoulders. And you know what? He says it with such conviction I sort of believe him.

A few lines from “Lean times in Lankhmar”, by Fritz Leiber, imho the best short story ever written:

…the gods in Lankhmar sometimes seem as if they must be as numberless as the grains of sand in the Great Eastern Desert. The vast majority of them began as men, or more strictly the memories of men, who led ascetic, vision-haunted lives and died painful, messy deaths. One gets the impression that since that since the beginning of time an unending horde of their priests and apostles (or even the gods themselves, it makes little difference) have been crippling across that same desert, the Sinking Land, and the Great Salt Marsh–to converge on Lankhmar’s low, heavy-arched Marsh Gate–meanwhile suffering by the way, various inevitable tortures, castrations, blindings, and stonings, impalements, crucifixions, quarterings and so forth at the hands of eastern brigands and Mingol unbelievers who, one is tempted to think, were created solely for the purpose of seeing to the running of that cruel gantlet.

The word “crippling”, cannot, in fact, be used to refer to a form of progressive movement — that usage does not exist in the English language. Did Fritz Leiber know that? Probably. Did he care? Nope. “Chutzpah” as a term was probably invented by someone who had just read a Fritz Leiber story. But Leiber gets away with it because he leaves you with images — hordes of impaled and crucified priests, crippling across an endless desert, for instance — that you will never forget.

Finally, some dialogue from Byan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, which is a graphic novel and thus not real writing at all:

The protagonist Scott is getting his ass kicked by his nemesis, Todd, who has psychic powers because of his vegan diet. Todd’s girlfriend Envy, who has just learned Todd cheated on her, is watching.
Scott: “I can’t even get near him! I need some kind of…like….last minute, poorly set-up deus ex machina!!!”
Immediately prior to this, Scott was almost — but not quite — rescued by an intervention that can only be described as a last minute, poorly set-up deus ex machina… so… wait a second…
Two men pop up out of nowhere.
They are pointing their fingers at Todd as if they were holding imaginary guns.
Cop 1: “Todd Ingram, you’re under arrest for veganity violation!”
Todd: “What’d I do? What authority do you represent?! YOU CAN’T DO THIS! I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING! YOU CAN’T PROVE ANYTHING! I’M A ROCK STAR!
Cop 2: “We have it on record that at 12:27 this afternoon you did knowingly consume a restricted food item.”
Cop 1: “Gelato, bitch.”
Todd: “What? It… it wasn’t me!”
Envy: “Hang on… Are you saying gelato isn’t vegan?”
Cop 1: “It contains milk & eggs, ma’am.”
Envy (thinking to herself: “it sounds delicious”)
Envy: “…is chicken parmesan vegan?”
Cop 2 (aside): “Is it?”
Cop 1: “I’m not sure. Isn’t ‘parmesan’ like a rodent or something?”
Envy (pounding on Todd): “YOU LIED TO ME!!!!”

There is so much WTF in this passage I can’t even begin to parse through it. And yet the logic — in regards to the salient plot details, and more subtly, Envy and Todd’s respective reactions in light of their characters — stands up flawlessly. Dadaist it may sound, but it’s constructed as carefully as any scene in a Eugene O’Neil or Arthur Miller play. And if you didn’t know what a parmesan was, wouldn’t you think it sounds like a type of rodent?

Written by jphaas

April 26th, 2011 at 3:59 am

Posted in writing