The only imperative that nature utters is: ‘Look. Listen. Attend.’
C. S. Lewis
The only imperative that nature utters is: ‘Look. Listen. Attend.’
C. S. Lewis
In its earliest meaning, amateur meant having a marked fondness, liking or taste for some activity. If we’re talking about writing, an amateur is someone who loves to write . . . or perhaps more accurately, writes for love.
It’s a marvelous concept, a life-affirming concept, doing something—anything—for the pure love of doing it.
As someone who earns her living with words, I admire—let’s face it, sometimes I even envy—amateur writers.
I work with such writers often, and usually they come to me because they want, they need to publish. A need I understand. I know well the joy of holding my own book in my hands.
Nonetheless, I often want to say to these passionate people, “Even if you never publish, maybe especially if you never publish, you still have the best part. You have the writing itself.”
For the amateur, the act of writing can be its own justification, the standards to be met wholly the writer’s own. There is freedom in that, real freedom. And even joy.
An analogy. I love to cook. I’m a pretty darned good cook. My meals are varied and interesting and healthful. But I am strictly an amateur. No restaurant would ever hire me, and more to the point, I would hate cooking if I had to make my living doing it.
I wouldn’t want to wake every morning knowing I must cook whether I felt like cooking that day or not. Nor would I want to cook day after day to please strangers, people whose tastes I can’t predict.
As an amateur, I don’t have to compete with other cooks or meet a standard someone else has set. I simply prepare food with pleasure and enjoy both eating and sharing my meals. And that is all the satisfaction I require.
Some days I can even announce, “We’ll be eating out of the refrigerator today.” Or “How about take out?”
That is freedom.
When it comes to writing, though, such freedom is long gone.
Each manuscript I produce must please, not just myself and those other few in the world who love me, but my agent, an editor, reviewers, librarians, teachers. And my readers, of course. The ones who stand on the other side of every page I produce.
Needing to please all those strangers alters my relationship with my work.
Don’t mistake me. I have never been asked to diminish my work to meet an editor’s demands. Every editor I have ever known wants the same thing I do, the best possible book.
(The only exception was a toy company executive I encountered years ago when I was writing booklets to accompany toys. Under a pseudonym, I’m glad to say. Every time she touched a piece she made it worse, and I grew so discouraged—and finally so exhausted—that I gave in.)
But toy companies aside, every editor I have ever worked with has asked more of my work, not less. Still, responding to an editor’s eye is very different from writing for myself and a few close friends.
Moreover, when I finish one project and sell it (if I’m lucky), I still wake the next morning knowing I must do it all over again. That I must come up with an idea that will have a reasonable chance of finding a place in the market and start writing again. Immediately!
I am grateful beyond words to be able to support myself with this good work, but you amateurs out there, you folks who can write purely for love . . . well, I know it doesn’t always feel that way, but you really do have the best part.
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have some lovely steel-head trout waiting in the kitchen. And a recipe for mustard-dill sauce!
As to writing in order to buy that trout? It’s a privilege to sell my work, of course. It is also satisfying. Fulfilling. And wildly unpredictable. Occasionally so unpredictable as to be terrifying.
And every single day, it is good, hard work.
But writing for love?
Ah . . . I remember it well. It was the purest kind of fun!
Writing is incarnational.
I, like every other writer I know—at least every other publishing writer, spend far more time revising than I do writing the original draft. I even prefer revising to the initial process of filling a blank page.
I never think of revising as fixing something that is broken. Rather I see it as immersing myself in something I love . . . and making it better.
In revision, I set out to accomplish many things. Greater clarity, of course. Better flow. Stronger impact. Often more brevity, too. But one of my most crucial aims with every piece I write is to achieve greater simplicity.
I am convinced, whatever audience I’m writing for, that the simplest word choice, the simplest phrasing, the simplest over-all structure has the most power.
I’m not talking about limiting vocabulary. The simplest word that is right for a particular moment may not be an obvious or even an easy one.
Years ago a friend challenged me about using the word “soughed” in my very first novel for middle graders, Shelter from the Wind. The sentence read, “The wind soughed.” “I don’t know that word,” she said. “How do you expect kids to know it?”
My reply? “I don’t expect kids to know it, but as it’s used I’ll guarantee they will understand what it means.” I chose “soughed” for its meaning, of course, “making a moaning, whistling or rushing sound.” But I chose it equally for the sound of the word itself. In a sad moment in the story. “Soughed” emphasizes that sadness. Doesn’t it?
Over the years I have developed many techniques for keeping my text simple.
Sometimes I work in short sentences or even in sentence fragments. Or in verse. All of those techniques give my words breathing space on the page. And breathing space gives impact.
Everyone knows strong verbs are essential. Recent studies of the brain have taught us something every writer should know. When we read “leap” our brains go into leap mode. As though we have actually leapt! Who knew words had so much power? Well, writers have always known. Today we have proof.
But I think the most important technique I have learned over the years is one I have rarely heard mentioned. I examine every sentence while I’m writing and again when I’m revising to clear out adjectives. (I rarely use adverbs. A well-chosen verb usually makes adverbs superfluous.) But adjectives are lovely, rich, useful things . . . until they start bumping one another off the page.
I use a rule of thumb. I permit only one noun in a sentence to be modified and that noun is usually allowed only one descriptor.
There are exceptions, of course. Lines where I want lushness instead of momentum and power. But most of the time, I want momentum. And power.
Now notice something. Rules are made to be broken, and once we know what strength a rule gives, we can break it to heightened effect.
Go back a couple of paragraphs to the sentence that begins, “But adjectives are lovely, rich, useful things.” There you can see I have broken my own rule. But notice something else. I broke it to a purpose. That pile of adjectives slows you down at the exact moment I want to slow you down.
I want you to notice that I am not denigrating adjectives.
I have been writing in this controlled way for so many years that, whether I’m composing or revising, excess adjectives seem to tumble out of my path. As I frame each sentence, I modify only the noun I most want brought to my reader’s notice, and while my text is rarely lush, it is consistently clean and effective.
Last week, a favorite site of mine, BrainPickings, devoted a posting to my recent picture book, The Stuff of Stars. www.brainpickings.org I have long admired Maria Popoya, the creator of BrainPickings, for her fierce intelligence and for her ability to draw together insights from wide-ranging sources. I am thrilled to have her call out my book.
But in light of our discussion about the power of simplicity, let me hold up the title of the piece: The Stuff of Stars: A Stunning Marbled Serenade to the Native Poetry of Science and the Cosmic Interleaving of Life. The subtitle, A consummate celebration of the improbable loveliness of life amid the edgeless panorama of cosmic being.
Did your mind boggle a bit as you read those lines?
I rest my case.
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.