... do we side with Blake, who said, "The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom," or William of Occam, who stated, "entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem," translated as "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily"? What is necessary? Why do writers choose to seek out excess or simplicity as sources of wisdom? Does each of us have an innate tendency or affinity for one or the other, or can we locate our inner minimalist and maximalist? Can they get along -- can they be reconciled, divvy up the turf, work together or alternate shifts?
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
A World of Opposites by *hotburrito2
Last night I took yet another fabulous seminar at Grub Street, this time taught by author Tim Horvath. This one was entitled, More AND Less: Varieties of Minimalism and Maximalism. Here is the class introduction:
Tim argued, and I agree, that this is an issue at the heart of the act of writing; that all writing and editing comes down to adding or subtracting words from the story. Inhaling and exhaling.
I am a minimalist. Reading the agent blogs, I felt like the only person on earth who was struggling to add words to get to the 80-100K word count sweet spot. I love editing and dread first drafts. My all-time favorite writer is Hemingway. By contrast, the writing of David Foster Wallace makes me angry; I mean I actually physically start to feel vibrating rage. His novels are just longer versions of the kind of detailed garbage I wrote when I was in 9th grade, and hadn't done the reading for the assignment, but needed to snow the stupid teachers so I'd still get an A. It's self-indulgent, if not outright masturbatory, and I don't understand why people think it deserves acclaim. I just. don't. get it. He can take his footnotes and shove them.
Whoa. Sorry. That just came out.
Despite these obviously strong feelings on the subject of minimalism, my all-time favorite living writer is John Irving, who gets no charge whatsoever out of authors like Hemingway (yes, I realize that many people hate Ernest more than I hate DFW) and instead prefers the more luxurious Dickensian writing. I enjoy Tolkien's epic fantasies and Stephen King's 500-page oeuvres. And when I was writing my own novel, I kept wondering, "How is that that I enjoy so much reading this 'extraneous' material, the scenes that don't necessarily move the story forward but that certainly shine more light on the characters and settings... and yet when I try to write it, it feels like needless 'filler'?"
Now you know why I signed up for this seminar within minutes of reading the course description.
In class we read excerpts of work by "Team Minimalist"* and "Team Maximalist."** We talked about the elements that made each piece lean more towards one side or the other -- vocabulary, punctuation, sentence/paragraph length, use of descriptive language and imagery, even subject matter. And then we did an exercise, writing the same scene in each style.
This, my friends, was extremely cool. You need to try it.
I was amazed by how little the "voice" of each piece changed between versions. I was impressed by how each version clearly had stylistic benefits to offer.
And I think that, as an exercise, the technique has great potential for rough drafts. Write against your usual style: minimalists might be able to extract more information about the story they are trying to tell (that they may not have even realized was missing from the first version), or perhaps they will discover a single vivid and vibrant sentence that must be retained for the final draft. Maximalists may find themselves forced to focus more closely on the heart of the scene, and be able to use that knowledge to make the overall piece even more targeted and rich.
WHICH ARE YOU? Do you tend to read the same style that you write? And, if you try this "same scene, two styles" method, please report back on how it goes for you! I think this may be my new technique for getting unstuck/defeating writers' block.
* Captain: Raymond Carver; Players: Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme,
Mary Robison, Sandra Cisneros, Marguerite Duras, Cormac McCarthy of The Road; Hall of Famer: Samuel Beckett; Coach: Gordon Lish.
** Captain: David Foster Wallace; Players: Rick Moody, Salman Rushdie, Nicholson Baker of The Mezzanine, Annie Dillard, Normon Rush, Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian; Hall of Famer: James Joyce; Coach: Paul West.