Dave Lull recently caused me to do something I never do voluntarily – reread a piece I wrote in the happily forgotten past. It was five years old, and like most five-year-olds it was wordy, unfocused and emotionally self-indulgent. At the time, I thought I was doing my best to be concise and charging words with maximum meaning. Now it sounds slack and a little shrill, with too many words doing too little work.
Decades of newspaper reporting taught me that one of the reasons we write is to learn how to write. Another is to pick our models with exquisite care, and we’re unlikely to find them on the op-ed or sports pages. I love Sir Thomas Browne’s prose but I don’t want to write that way, any more than I want to write like Hemingway or Raymond Carver. I fancy a style that’s neither corpulent nor anorexic. In Fred Astaire (Yale University Press, 2008), Joseph Epstein defines “true style” as “a way of viewing the world that at the same time exhibits a strong indication of what one thinks of the world.” He elaborates:
“In literature style tends to be represented by point of view. Beneath the surface of the complex worlds of their fiction, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, James Joyce, Willa Cather, and others reveal how they view the world—in its richness, variety, seriousness, comedy, darkness, gravity, and glory—and this view not merely informs but forms their styles.”
True style is neither filigree nor gingerbread, a fancy veneer epoxied to the white pine of mundanity, as it is for many purported “stylists.” What we write about dictates how we write it. If our “point of view” is, in Epstein’s sense, a hollow celebration of self, we’ll favor adjectives and rhetorical flourishes. If the world is our subject, we'll rely on nouns and verbs, matter and energy. True style is suffused with thought, not unmediated emotion. Yvor Winters said it:
“Write little; do it well.
Your knowledge will be such,
At last, as to dispel
What moves you overmuch.”
“Write little” I’ve always taken to mean write sparingly, don’t over-indulge, don’t mistake quantity for quality. Mightn’t it also mean write with economical density, packing “Much in Little?”