Today I thought I’d write about one of those ironic problems that I’ve suffered with for nigh on my entire life now, but which has become especially acute ever since I decided to become a Serious Writer:
The impediment of clever writing to my growth and maturity as an author.
By ‘clever writing’ one could mean many different things, I suppose – and like Potter Stewart before me, I could fall back on that old chestnut of “knowing it when I see it”.¹ But I think that anyone who has bent him- or herself seriously to the task of writing will recognize what I’m referring to: that perfectly crafted, unctuously evocative, universe-encapsulating sentence fragment / paragraph / chapter that you just. cannot. bear. to. change.
Not even if it interrupts the narrative for no discernible reason.
Not even if removing the passage in question would allow you to actually finish with a better story.
Not even if you need to come in under your 20-page limit and the half-page overrun could be resolved by trimming said cleverness (instead you’ll spend an hour adjust margins, font size, and paragraph spacing until they’re just right).
This is a problem in fiction writing, no doubt. Personally I think I’ve been suitably ruthless in self-editing my first novel, but there are a few places where I could not bring myself to strike out the incontrovertible genius² that I had committed to the page. The story might have been better for the amendment – who knows? The point is that I didn’t feel as though I could live with the change that this would entail.
The parenting metaphor is overused when we authors describe our writing – we ‘gave birth to’ our prose, or ‘nurtured’ it from conception to full-fledged life, or chided ourselves for ‘neglecting’ a half-finished manuscript – but I think it does help to explain the problem of clever writing. We – the Clever Writers – have brought to full gestational age one perfect little being … perhaps at the cost of a whole host of siblings with some serious personality defects. We’ll dote on our favoured child, lavishing praise and attention on it that would do more good elsewhere. I’m convinced that a die-hard Clever Writer will lament having to do away with his cherished creation, even if the end result is much improved.
As I said, this is undoubtedly a problem for the fictional writer. It’s a HUGE problem for the academic writer, though. I know this because I suffer from Acute Idiopathic Rhetorical Adornment Syndrome (AIRAS)³, the symptoms of which present whether I’m penning my next novel or my next research paper. But in academia the stakes are higher, in the sense that you’re not creating a world populated with imagined people and settings, but are instead trying to describe some (albeit small) part of the empirical world.
As a PhD student I think that for the most part I’ve been true to the theory and data with which I’m working, and I feel comfortable that my papers faithfully represent the phenomena that I’ve observed. But there are portions of my writing that I know I’ll be reluctant to omit from the final draft of my thesis – even if they have only the barest, most tenuous link to my research when all is said and done.
I’m open to all ideas, cherished readers, about how to overcome the perils of clever writing. Full disclosure, though: the first step may be admitting that I have a problem, but if the second step involves actually doing something about it … well, I’m not sure if I’m ready for that big a change.
¹ This is the first of many clever nuggets interspersed with the more serious observations in this post. Asking a ‘clever writer’ (in the pejorative sense of the term) to write in a straightforward style is akin, I would imagine, to asking Philip Roth to smile for his dust cover photograph. The odds are against your succeeding, and even if you get what you’ve asked for, you’re both likely to be diminished by the effort.
² For examples of this unremitting literary genius, consider buying my novel!
³ Look for inclusion of AIRAS in DSM-V next year – followed shortly thereafter by an FDA-approved anti-AIRAS wonder drug (brand name Excisin) marketed by Pfizer.