Wednesday, December 02, 2020

'But Be Severe, Severe—at the End'

Katie Louchheim (1903-1991) was a New Deal-style Democrat, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of State under Kennedy and Johnson. As a poet she published at least three collections, including With or Without Roses (1966). I can’t judge the quality of her work as I’ve read none of it and I know of her only because of a letter Louise Bogan wrote in 1948, collected in A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (ed. Mary Kinzie, 2005). 

Louchheim had apparently asked Bogan for advice getting book reviews published. Bogan suggested she write some sample reviews for practice, telling her: “Make them crisp! Start with a short sentence, and keep your EAR on your nouns and verbs.” Good practical advice, but Bogan is just getting started:


“This ‘writing with the ear’ (as it were) is really the best technical practice you can give yourself. Remember that the reader’s attention span is usually v. short. I cut and cut my sentences, right up to the last version; always keeping the adjectives down to a minimum and the adverbs practically down to zero. The verb can do so much!”


There’s nothing novel here. Most seasoned writers have learned these lessons, but it’s nice to be reminded that such advice is applicable to any writer’s style. Write a sentence. Count the number of inert words that contribute nothing to its meaning and music. Cut them, to use Bogan’s verb. There's no good reason for anyone to write badly in public. What you do at home is your business. She goes on:


“I don’t mean to make you write completely without color or sound; but try writing as barely as possible, at first. Then put in your connectives, etc. (Although I think that writing ‘at full spurt,’ and then paring down , is the best all-around way. Don’t censor yourself in the beginning! Keep the feeling fresh, and be sure some tension is working at all times. But be severe, severe—at the end.)”

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