Monday, March 10, 2008


Today I dipped into Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story, one of the most brilliant books on writing craft I’ve ever come across. Of course, the main focus of this book – how to plan and structure a novel or short story (or Franklin’s specialty, the dramatic non-fiction piece) – is only indirectly relevant to yrs. truly: I just don’t seem to be genetically structured to write extended fiction, however much I enjoy reading it. (The closest I've come are dramatic monologues, prose poems and little "storyettes" now fashionably called "postcard stories".) But what Franklin writes about word choice, under a section on polishing the story, any poet could take cues from. I’ve arrived at pretty well the same conclusions my own way. But refreshing it was to read this. Frankly, I’ve never seen it said better. (To know precisely what Franklin means by “active images” or “complication”, you’ll have to read his book.)


The key to word choice, as well as to the inherent power of active images, is specificity.

Specificity is a concept that applies exquisitely to the level of polish. On the conceptual level, stories benefit from sweeping summarizations and even from clichés: “Man seeks love” is a powerful complication.

But at the polish level, the story must be told in terms of unique individuals and their specific actions and thoughts. As in poetry, the universal is finally achieved by focusing down, tightly, even microscopically, on specific events and the details that surround them.

Clichés, precisely because they are so widely applicable (and not, in my opinion, because they are “tired” – whatever that means), destroy the writer’s effort to be specific and therefore universal.


Simplicity, or the quality of straightforwardness, is a key concept of polish. Clarity of image is as sensitive to complexity as structure is to woodwork. If you have any doubts, read Huckleberry Finn and then follow it, without pause, with Faulkner’s The Hamlet. Or try to. The sensation is something like running full-tilt into that familiar brick wall.

This is not a total criticism of Faulkner. Faulkner, like Joyce before him, was an experimenter and inventor. To criticize him for lack of clarity is much like criticizing the Wright brothers because their airplanes couldn’t carry troops. Still, the example makes my point.

The quest for simplicity is complicated by two great dangers. The first is that the image will not be simple enough; the second is that it will be too simple.

Simplicity ultimately boils down to the use of as few words as possible. If you need very many words to create your active image, and particularly if very many of the words are modifiers or if the image is bracketed by prepositions, you probably aren’t using the right words. This is the reason that virtually all polish experts issue frequent dire warnings against the use of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs), prepositions, and words that end with “ing”.

Modifiers, prepositions and so forth are not in and of themselves evil. The problem is that the writer tends to need them only if he is trying to make do with an almost-right word. If you need a modifier to alter the meaning of a word, then the chances are very good that you don’t have the right word. If you did, it wouldn’t need modification.

If this is the case, simply cutting out the modifiers and prepositional constructions may simplify the thought, but it will also make it inaccurate. The situation calls to mind Albert Einstein’s observation that he liked things to be as simple as they could be…but not any simpler than they really were.

At the same time, lest the apprentice hide behind Albert’s baggy trousers, it should be pointed out that Einstein was the same fellow who summed up the entire physical universe in a single mathematical image.

The writer’s pursuit, like the physicist’s, is a combination of simplicity and accuracy. A master craftsman by choosing exactly the right words, can sum up great segments of the psychological universe. What he achieves in the process is not mere simplicity but elegance.

For a poet polishing his or her poems (oh, that hardest thing to do – that’s why hundreds of writing programs are full), I'd say the advice is similar: regard your modifiers, prepositional phrases, and the like, with suspicion; see if your lines can do better without them.

Many poets, myself included, are voluptuaries of words… oh how we love the sound of them! The struggle between sound and sense: maybe I could write my first novel about that. Any
parallelism (these often disguise excess), any use of two or three images to express a feeling or idea where one would do, beware! And those dear, cherished phrases – especially the clever, abstract ones – most especially those that may have inspired a poetic flight – interrogate them! Even if they’re your dearest children, be prepared to kill them off. Or, to use another metaphor (here’s me using two where one will do – but I think this one’s illustrative) those phrases may have served as scaffolding you needed to build your poem. Try taking them down: if the house still stands solidly on its own, be ruthless, clear ’em away.

Of course, the nutshell from the workshops is, write loose, edit tight. You really can’t allow editorial consideration to interfere with creative flow. But for any poet in the process of editing his or her work, I’d say absorb the above and then read Creeley, Creeley, Creeley – the epitome of poetic concision. Even -- especially -- if your style is quite different. Then examine your work with the same acid eye.


Pris said...

This post is excellent. So many points you've quoted here that we may 'know' but don't apply often enough.

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks. Of course, it's hardest to apply these principles with your own work -- to separate your personal experience from the poem itself, to determine if the words convey the meaning you suffuse them with. Yet all too often, you're left doing doing that editorial work on your own: people who can give valuable feedback have limited time, aren't available, etc.