Saturday, April 19, 2014

`Strike It Out'

The experience of writing for newspapers for twenty years taught me than copy is not sacred, anything you’ve written can be chopped or changed, for reasons good or bad, and that whatever you’ve written can be improved by yourself or by someone else. Your heart must be in the writing but at some point you let it go, like a wayward child. Prima donnas and deadlines can’t coexist. This can be tough for young and not so young writers to accept. It takes a degree of stubbornness and pride to write publically. (What you do in a notebook on the kitchen table is nobody’s business.) But it takes a comparable humility to submit one’s work to cold, impersonal editing, whether by others or by yourself, and to acknowledge that we are not always the best judges of what we’ve written. 

Recall Boswell’s account of the April 30, 1773, dinner at the home of Johnson’s friend Topham Beauclerk. With Lord Charlemont, Sir Joshua Reynolds and others, Johnson has great fun at Oliver Goldsmith’s expense (“he always gets the better when he argues alone”). Johnson’s next victim is William Robertson, author of the two-volume History of Scotland 1542-1603 (1753). He’s a Scot, of course, and fellow-Scot Boswell defends him against Johnson’s dismissal of Robertson’s “verbiage.” Among his charges against the historian: 

“It is not history. It is imagination.” 

 “Robertson is like a man who has packed gold in wool: the wool takes up more room than the gold.” 

“No man will read Robertson’s cumbrous detail.” 

Then Johnson, ever vigilant for evidence of vanity, moves on from the specific to the general:  

“I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: `Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’” 

Kill the little darlings, as a city editor in Indiana once told me. Whatever elicits that little tingle of ego-satisfaction – beware. Writing involves gratification and its denial. In June 1784, just six months before Johnson’s death, Boswell recounts this exchange, a variation on the advice he rendered above: 

Miss Adams: `Do you think, Sir, you could make your Ramblers better?’ Johnson: `Certainly I could.’ Boswell: `I'll lay a bet, Sir, you cannot.’ Johnson: `But I will, Sir, if I choose. I shall make the best of them you shall pick out, better.’ Boswell: `But you may add to them. I will not allow of that.’ Johnson: `Nay, Sir, there are three ways of making them better; --putting out, --adding, --or correcting.’”

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