“I just tap in one paragraph after another with little notion of whether they fit together or not. As a writer, organization or structure (to use the architectural metaphor) isn’t even my short suit. My method of composition is to attempt to write one interesting sentence after another and hope that the interest, so to say, will compound itself and the absence of a high plan will go unnoticed.”
Not the best advice to offer a novice, surely, as it’s likely to encourage self-indulgence and a slapdash sense of composition. Better to urge ruthless culling of facile words and clichés of thought. Don’t be seduced by your own pretty words. Write less and say more with it. Prune the prosaic from your prose but don’t substitute poeticisms. The advice above is from one of our best, Joseph Epstein, in Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (Yale University Press, 2013), his email correspondence with Frederic Raphael. Epstein mentions three pieces he’s working on, all later published – the short story “Widow’s Pique” for Standpoint, an essay about Chicago for Commentary, and a piece about “the stages of life” for Notre Dame Magazine. Each is a ramble of sorts. Each feels at once loose and disciplined, especially the essays. Judged by the forest-and-trees test, Epstein is a dedicated tree man. He’s not thesis-driven. He works by the row and the acres take care of themselves.
On Friday, Epstein published in the Wall Street Journal an essay on the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) and his masterwork, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), a book I was assigned to read as a freshman by my history professor. The volume, Epstein writes, revealing something about his own methods as a writer:
“. . .despite its formidable title, runs to a mere 341 small pages in my Phaidon Press edition. Burckhardt claimed that he could easily have made it three times as long, and that a larger book would doubtless have earned him `more respect among a lot of people.’ Instead, as he noted in the first sentence of the book, he had written `an essay in the strictest sense of the word.’ By this he meant a work that did not aim to be either complete or definitive.”