On Clarity

On Sunday it was fifty-four degrees, the air edgeless, soft and pale yellow.  A young fisherman in a navy sweatshirt and baseball cap was on the edge of the river where Hannah swims; he took his simple hook and line upstream a bit when Hannah leapt from the bank to retrieve a stick my husband threw into the water for her.  I apologized for frightening the fish when we hiked past him a few minutes later.  He said, “Oh, didn’t matter.  Nothin’s bitin’ anyway.  I’m just out to be out.”  I knew how he felt.  Some of the snow in the woods is turning to mud as treacherous and slippery as the ice was just a few days ago; in other spots it’s still thick, with a crystal glaze on the top.  Only fooler tastes of spring, I know, but these warmer days are glorious. 

The week has been a technology tangle.  I’ve realized that blog subscribers aren’t receiving notifications of new posts, which I thought I’d figured out and set up three weeks ago.  Not so.  I don’t mean to complain, but when the instructions keep referring to widgets, plug ins, imports, exports, trackbacks, an ominous ‘press this,’ and the terms are defined by referring to each other, this author is in trouble.  Even my husband, who regularly gets accolades as a technogeek, has been shaking his head.  Anyway, I might have it right now.  If you received an e-mail regarding this post, you’re subscribed.  If not, there’s a new Subscribe2 button at the top of the page that I think works if you’d like to subscribe now.  I’m always grateful for feedback and comments on technology as well as content.  Please let me know if something isn’t working correctly or better yet, delight me with the happy news that it is! 

As I’ve tried to translate technical writing into simple English, it’s underlined the importance of clarity for me.  As important as delicious, poetic language is to literary fiction, so is accessibility.  I don’t want anyone to have to read a sentence multiple times to understand what it’s about.  (There are exceptions, though.  For example, when depicting a confused, disoriented, hallucinating, delusional, or otherwise sick or dying fictional character, language may be used differently, evocatively, to bring us into an entirely different mind state.  Terrific examples of this appear in Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers.)

For me, the best teacher of clarity has always been the slender classic by Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.  I try to cut unnecessary words and phrases so the writing is lean.  I read work outloud.  If I stumble or have to remind myself of the meaning in order to emphasize the correct words, I recast the sentence until I believe the words flow like clean water in one of our nearby creeks.  I want the water to dislodge and turn over rocks of truth in the creek bed, to reveal undersides which will sometimes be dark, sometimes surprisingly beautiful. 

I’ve seen The Social Network.  I understand how technology enables political revolution, and medical science.  It’s everywhere and it’s critical.  And I’ve learned over and over that even fiction writers have to use the Internet to conduct business.  At the most basic level, agents and editors want manuscripts sent via e-mail.  And much more:  they also expect authors to maintain an extensive digital presence.  We have to educate ourselves about everything from the Google settlement (was our work digitized without our permission?) to the unfavorable royalty rates for e-book publication over print. 

Today I’m only talking about crafting literature without the distraction of technology.  Some days I want to quit trying to figure it all out, and to go back to the pencil and paper I once used to write poetry.  Sure, it was inefficient to mark up drafts, cut words, use all those arrows and inserts, recopy.  But the process helped me hear the music, see where the lines needed to break.  Finished poems went into envelopes like pressed pansies and I’d snail mail them to the editors of literary journals, along with stamped, self-addressed envelopes.  Then I’d write a few more, and send them out in another month.  Published poems arranged themselves into books manuscripts that were sent out the same way.  Time was pure, and all about the writing.  When I’m reminded of that second kind of clarity and the touchstone elements of style, I long to sit out with a notebook and pencil in good air by a creek to let the water remind me what’s real.

3 Responses to On Clarity

  1. The key to so much in life is balance, or finding the right balance; would I be wrong in assuming that it is also true for writing and writers? Perhaps the cure for overwhelming techno-babble is the purity and clarity that can best be found with a notebook and pencil in hand.The next time Spring pops in for a cameo, give in, pick up that notebook, grab a few pencils and go.
    I live in an apartment and my landlord pays for the heat so open windows are frowned upon in the winter months. I also smoke. So by the time February rolls around, the air in here feels like it has substance- not pleasant. Spring paid us a teaser visit here as well with temps in the high sixties a week or so ago. I turned the thermostat down and opened all the windows, even turned on the ceiling fan to make sure things were moving. It was only for a few hours and I hated closing the windows, but it made all the difference. My home no longer smells like a barroom or an AA meeting ( before smoking was banned in both those places) and I can hold on a little longer waiting for the time when I can have my windows open again.
    Listen to your longings, go out and write by the creek or whatever strikes your fancy that day. Open the windows even if only for a little while- it may make all the difference.

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