Tag Archives: Brain Pickings

The Virtue of Simplicity


Photo by Jess @ Harper Sunday on Unsplash

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 WindThe 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 Starswww.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.

The Privilege of Hope

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Hope . . . is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. . . . It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

These words come from “the great Czech playwright turned dissident turned president, Vaclav Havel.”  And the phrase I just quoted, as well as the larger quote above, comes from the amazing newsletter by Maria Popova called brainpickings.

If you haven’t yet discovered brainpickings, I recommend both reading and supporting it.  I promise Maria Popova will enlarge your life or, at the very least, your mind.

But here is the question Havel’s words left me with.  How can those of us who write for children do our work without hope?  For that matter, how does anyone write anything for anyone without hope?  I can’t imagine, day after day, finding the energy to gather words of despair.  And what would be the point of putting them out into the world?

I’m not talking about cheerfulness or false reassurance when I speak of hope, and Havel isn’t either.  I’m talking about something deeper, harder . . . harder to come by, maybe.  Certainly harder to live.

I’m talking about a hope nutritious enough to feed to children.

If you, as I do, look out at our world—our spiraling-out-of-control climate, our spiraling-out-of-control political system, our spiraling-out-of-control wars—and find yourself filled with apprehension, then how do you put all that aside to write a picture book for the most tender of the young?  Or even a novel for teens?

What do we have to say?

Duck?  Disaster is on its way?

I’ve been struggling with that question lately.  The truth is that my view of our world has never been a confident one, and I have struggled with that lack of confidence my entire career.  I have come up with two very simple answers.  (Let the simplicity of my answers serve as warning.  For better and for worse—and it is both—I have been gifted with a reductionist mind.)

The first answer I have found is to turn outward.  I mean truly outward.  Lately I have been reading books about the Universe in all its mystery, about the stars, about quantum mechanics.  I don’t understand all I read.  Truth be told, I understand only a fraction of it.  But it fills me with wonder.  It fills me with “Wow!”  And that, that “Wow!”, is what I want to bring to my life and to my writing.

My second answer is the opposite, to turn inward.  Profoundly inward.  To find the deepest truths of relationships, the deepest truths of my own heart.  And to carry those into my life, my work.  Because such truths can never be about despair, no matter how much pain they may hold.  Such truths embody healing at their very core.

Havel also said this:

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

Havel says, “Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul.”  But I don’t think he means that hope is something we a born with like brown eyes or a sunny disposition.

Hope is something we must teach ourselves, day after day after day.  And once we have a firm hold on it, then—and only then—can we be privileged to carry our hope to the young.