The Beast Tamed

When you adopt the organic approach to writing, you can easily become swallowed whole within the gigantic, months-long effort that writing a book requires. An author’s imagination must be free to roam, because the best nuggets often are found at unexpected moments. Yet I do think that once a certain amount of exploration is done—at the least, by the end of a first draft—a more disciplined approach needs to be taken. 

When I discuss this topic, I always think of the novelist V. S. Naipaul. I saw him speak once, at MIT, of all places.  That was back in my later twenties, during a five-year period in which I decided I would find out if I really was good enough to be a writer. I did the usual young writer bit, working part-time blue-collar jobs.  For edification I liked to go to listen to famous authors when they came to Boston, and I jumped at the chance to see Naipaul, because the forceful prose of his Guerrillas affected me powerfully.  

He gave a wonderful reading that night, really spellbinding, but the words I remember most came during the question and answer period that followed. A buff guy about my age stood up and asked Naipaul, essentially, whether he felt that writing should emerge from the primal spirit within us. I had felt the same impulse many times, since the Beat influence was so strong back then. 

Yet Naipaul could not have been more decisive in his disdain. A true former colonial subject (albeit a brilliant one), he was more staunch than the British. He flatly informed the proud young beast that writing is the highest flower of the English language, and his writing bore no resemblance to primal instincts in the slightest. 

After the reading I returned to my tiny apartment greatly altered (keeping up that British strain). From then on I never looked at writing again the same way. Naipaul was right. Almost all of the writers I admired finely calibrated their every sentence, every word, for maximum impact. At the risk of committing heresy, I’ll admit that I reread Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and I was appalled at how sloppy the writing was. Benzedrine might be good for that first draft, but please, think of your reader. On the next pass, and the next, tighten up your prose. Make every word count. Then maybe your prose will flower as well.

Exercise: When you review your manuscript, look for long passages of interior monologue. You may have composed them in one long flourish, using the principle of automatic writing. As you review, be honest with yourself. Is all of this material needed? You may find that you can cut a passage in half, keeping only those parts that are really excellent—and save the reader the bother of the excess warbling.

“For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.”  —Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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