On Overwriting: The Pitfalls of Lyrical Prose 

irst, the disclaimer: The following opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the management. Nor are they hard and fast rules. Or profound truths. They are simply one writer’s thoughts on overwriting, an affliction I knew intimately for years, and one with which I continue to wrestle.

My apologies, then, to those of you who write pithy, terse sentences. Most of this session will be about writing too much, not too little. I will have something to say later about erring on the skimpy side, but you should understand that I’ve always treated these talks as a sort of lab, where I can examine my own process, address my personal writing foibles. And hopefully, by sharing them, save you some time and energy as you face the same problems.

So let me start where the seeds were sown, where my overwriting began. First grade. Don’t panic. I won't spend this entire lecture on my autobiography, but Mrs. Dougherty is crucial to my thesis. Mrs. Doughterty was my first grade teacher, a pretty woman with dark hair and eyes, and a sharp nose from which I should have taken warning. It was she who discovered that I was a Mirror Writer. Which is a lovely term, rife with poetic implications, but which simply means that I formed many of my letters in reverse. My B’s, C’s, and D’s, my S’s, E’s R’s, and P’s all faced backwards and to the left, instead of forward and to the right.

For this minor quirk I was consigned to the “Basement Reading Group.” There, exiled from the four-color, spritely lives of Dick and Jane, I joined a small contingent of wayward souls who followed the adventures of Sam and the Rat. Sam chased the Rat, who Ran around the Rug in tiny mimeographed booklets, illustrated with black and white stick figures.

Now even though this Basement metaphor was not lost on us exiles, I loved our snug, warm tunnel of a classroom, and I ADORED Sam and the Rat. I credit them to this day with making me a slow reader. And writer. One who savors every word. Of course, this savoring business can be carried to extremes. And I did, indeed, carry it there. In fact, I acquired such a fondness for the sound and shape of words and developed such proficiency in their skillful arrangement, that soon I wasn't paying attention to content at all. I began to “coast” through school on the strength of my writing alone. All through middle and high school, I wrote book reports without ever reading the books I described in florid, heartrending prose; I answered test questions with lengthy, ponderous essays on subjects I hadn’t bothered to study.

I was definitely OUT of the basement -- with a vengeance. I was skimming along on the surface of things, with no regard for what I said, so long as I said it artfully. And all indications were, this was the way to go. Because every one of my teachers praised my writing. They didn’t make note of my feel for a book, or my mastery of an idea. But they always extolled my “lyrical language.”

"Lyrical language?" What is that, anyway? The word lyrical comes from the Greek word for lyre, because lyric poems were meant to be accompanied by music. But these poems were more than just musical. They were up close and personal. Sappho was among the earliest lyric poets. She was a writer who focused on moments of intense personal feeling, on individual subjective experience instead of epic events and stories. You have only to compare the opening of the Iliad, Homer’s mega narrative, with one of Sappho’s haiku-like fragments to see what a stunning departure this was:


 ►“Sing, Goddess,” Homer begins, “the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians.” (Iliad, book I)


 ► “Tonight,” Sappho confides, “I’ve watched/the moon and then/the Pleiades/go down./The night is now/half-gone; youth/slips away; I am/in bed alone.” (Sappho, frag. 64, Mary Barnard trans.)

   

See the difference in scale here? In specificity? Both these poems are, well, “poetic.” Their language is musical and rhythmic. But one poem takes the “high road,” making even private moments larger than life, mythic in stature. While the other is written, not to justify the ways of the gods to man, so much as to gossip, complain, sigh, share. You can almost hear Sappho saying she’s feeling a bit “verklempt,” can’t you?

Now I have a suspicion that when my teachers credited me with "lyrical" prose, they were confusing bombast with heart. The dictionary defines lyric literature as writing that “suggests music in its sound patterns and expresses FEELING, especially a deep personal emotion in a direct and affecting manner.” Hmm. Let me run that by you one more time. “In a direct and affecting manner.” Well, only if you substitute “obtuse” for “direct”, “affected” for “affecting” and “mannered” for “manner,” would this definition describe the lyricism that served me most of my academic career, especially in college, where I seldom attended classes or read assignments. (I should add, lest you think I totally frittered away those four years, that I averaged a good eight hours a day playing cards. And that I discovered, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, that I had a real talent for bluffing. Let’s just say, that I was seldom short of spending money.)

kay. So I graduated writing obtuse, affected prose. I disdained “spare” writers like Hemingway and Carver. I loved the lushness of Welty and Woolf, the meandering denseness of Faulkner, Genet, Joyce. And yes, that glorious echo chamber, Melville. And after college and grad school, despite a series of jobs that called for terse ad copy and pithy press releases, I still nursed dreams of writing something as sonorous, as rolling and grand as Moby Dick.

These dreams were postponed but not forgotten during the years I churned out first, formulaic Sweet Valley Twins adventures under the name of Jamie Suzanne and then, a dismal stylistic and financial flop, my own pseudonymous series, Mercy Hospital. (If you can find one of these Avon classics by “Caroline Carlisle,” hold onto it. It’s probably as collectible as an Edsel hood ornament!) All through these patently unlyrical detours, I persisted in believing I was meant for larger, more mellifluous stuff, that I would someday once again earn ringing praise for my “lyricism.”

So what happened when I finally DID publish something under my own name? Nelson Malone Meets the Man from Mush-Nut, that’s what. Does this title sound trippingly on the tongue? Is this book replete with music and pathos? Not unless your tender passions are aroused by alien camp counselors and talking snakes. Not unless pink sneakers and a doll that does your homework strike a universal, epic chord.

How to explain my fall from lofty lyricism? Why, when I finally had a chance to step into Melville’s shoes, did I instead write nothing but deliberate, frivolous fun? Because, quite simply, I had children. And when I did, I discovered a different kind of reader, one who wasn’t looking for the things my teachers had required. My writing suddenly became, not a product designed to advance my own cause, but a process, an interaction between me and a reader I cared about. Like Sappho gabbing to her friends or complaining to her lover, I wrote for someone real, someone I knew ¾ my children and then other people’s. And no children wanted to watch while I flexed my metaphorical muscles. They didn’t want to stand around while I showed off my lyrical voice, skating along, doing fancy figure eights on the surface of everything I described. Children wanted me to get off my lyrical high horse; they wanted a story.

Which didn’t mean I had to give up lovely language. It just meant I had to say something with it. I consider myself blessed beyond all merit that children saved me this way. If they hadn’t, I might very well, given the current state of American letters, still be writing on empty, still be blowing verbal smoke.

I’m not alone, by the way, in thinking that much of adult lit in this country is hot air. In the 2001 double summer issue of The Atlantic, there is one of the most delightful, wise, and downright hilarious articles on contemporary literature I’ve read. It’s called “A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose.” (Did any of you see it?) It was written by one B.R. Myers, whose gender and previous publications are not mentioned by the magazine, but who is clearly a discerning and dangerously candid reader. In essence, this manifesto suggests that language-driven writing (or "pretty" writing, as Marion Dane Bauer called it in her talk yesterday) has taken over adult lit in this country. Why? Because too many readers, like the emperor’s courtiers who praise his invisible new clothes, are ashamed to admit that they, like children, want more story and fewer linguistic pyrotechnics.

Myers decimates authors like Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, David Guterson, and other celebs. The crime of which they are all guilty, according to this manifesto, is a failure to let their characters and their stories speak for themselves. The voice we hear, Myers claims, in all their critically acclaimed work, is the author’s. And it is a self-conscious, self-aggrandizing voice that booms, “You’re in professional hands, for only a Serious Writer would express himself so sonorously. Now read on, and remember, the mood’s the thing.”

As children’s writers, we are fortunate that our readers (and therefore most of our editors) have little patience for this sort of ego dance. And so, thanks to children, do I. Now that I know I’m writing for a teenager numb with loss, or a young girl torn between what the rules say and what her heart tells her, I’m not inclined to waste their time with irrelevant riffs, with strings of self-indulgent adjectives. With language, in short, that doesn’t grow from my story.

So what distinguishes language that’s story driven from a riff that’s been imposed on it? How do you tell what words belong to your character and which ones you’re forcing on her? One way is to watch WHO says ouch when you edit your prose. If you drop a particularly “lyrical” passage, one that strokes your writerly ego, it generally feels like the unkindest cut of all. I find in my case, my reaction makes up in outrage what it lacks in confidence. Sort of a whiney, “How could you?” On the other hand, if an editor or my writers’ group wants to delete something that’s integral to my character, my response is usually very different. It's simply a firm, calm “NO. This has to stay.”

 have to confess that sometimes the whine wins the day. In response, perhaps, to what’s happening in the world of adult lit (I have 30 adult titles piled in teetering pyramids around my bed as we speak.), or maybe in an effort to prove to that world that I can write with the big boys, I occasionally find myself yielding to the urge to mark my literary territory. This impulse, though it may take the shape of magnificently honed sentences, is really not coming from any higher place than the instinct that makes a dog lift its leg at every new turn in the road. And it’s a lot more dangerous. Because it almost always means I’m calling attention to myself at the expense of the story’s voice. It means my language stands out instead of my character or my setting or my scene. The Reader’s Manifesto I just mentioned takes a NY Time critic to task for opening an online discussion of one of Proulx’s books by asking readers to pick their favorite sentence. If you can do that, Myers suggests, the story, characters, and dialogue haven’t swept you away the way they should. If individual sentences are what stands out, then the author’s real message is, “Look at me. I’m a writer with a capital W.”

For me, the temptation to lapse into these authorial intrusions is worse in a first draft than in revision. I am, by nature, what Annie Dillard calls a lapidarian. Thanks to my old friends Sam and the Rat, I write slowly, word by polished word, and I'm reluctant to let anything go that doesn’t “sound right.” I read all my work out loud, but in early draft mode, what is it I pay attention to? Most often, I’m listening for music and flow; I don’t play any instrument and I can’t carry a tune, so all my frustrated musicality gets poured into my writing. During that first reading, then, I’m listening to my favorite instrument, the sound of my own voice. And so long as I’m doing that, I’m staying on the SURFACE, the skin of my story. I’m not going deep.

By the time I’m in revision, though, I know my characters and their voices. I know what my book is about. It’s easier then to kill my linguistic darlings, to cut away what isn’t right, what doesn’t come from the heart of my story, from its characters and their experience. Time and time again, I've found in my own work and in my students’, that when we know what we want to say, we can say it clearly. And when we don’t, we’re much more likely to take refuge in those fancy flourishes and cirlicues. They soothe our writerly souls, they let us forget that we still haven’t answered those simple, unavoidable questions: What does my character want? Why does she want it? What’s keeping her from having it?

Once you’ve answered those questions, though, the flourishes become downright embarrassing. By way of illustration, and as an exercise in abject humiliation, I thought I’d share with you an example of one of the “Look at Me, Mom, I’m Writing” moments that I excised in a recent revision. Take a look:

 

He hadn’t napped all day, and it was well past his dinner time. But Feena was beyond patience and excuses. She grabbed his shoulders again, turned his chin up so he’d have to see her, have to understand. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?” His bones were like a kitten’s or a bird’s between her fingers. “What did I say, Chris?” 

Behind the moth’s rushing wings and Christy’s whimpers, underneath the beating of her own heart, Feena felt a still place, a dark center that sucked up every noise, every touch. Something was alive in there, something fearsome and beautiful. Its rage wasn’t hot, but icy, pure. It didn’t think or worry or care. And it couldn’t be stopped. 

Christy’s face, his angel’s face, darkened then. Still crying, he shut his eyes and turned away from her. He put his arms around his head, crouched the way she’d seen him do at the amusement park. He was protecting himself – from her! And why did the anger get worse then? Crawling into her throat like a meal she couldn’t keep down? Why did Feena want to shake him, make him know she would never hurt him? Make him stop. For god’s sake, just make him stop.


This passage is from the first draft of Waiting for Christopher, published with Candlewick Press. It’s an early pass at a critical moment in the book, the moment when Feena, who has rescued an abused toddler, becomes increasingly irritated with little Christopher until she nearly turns into the same sort of angry caretaker she’s just saved him from. Just before these three paragraphs, little Christy begs Feena to read from a picture book. But then he graduates from begging to nagging, repeatedly shoving his book onto her lap, covering the homework she’s doing. Over and over, she pushes the book away and tells him No, not now! Then comes this moment of violent possibility.

Okay. Let’s talk about that lurid paragraph in the middle, the one I've circled in red. First of all it stands out like a sore, or at any rate, a runny thumb, doesn’t it? I mean, it certainly calls attention to itself. But what does it really add, to the story or to the character? Not much. It yammers away, making only a little music and even less sense. Check out the logic here. Do you see that the first two imagesin the paragraph are aural – the beating wings of the moth that we’ve learned in an earlier paragraph is hurling itself against a lamp? And then the beating of Feena’s own heart? Next, behind and under these sensory images, Feena doesn’t HEAR something else, which would be logical, but FEELS it instead. Can you feel something under a sound? Particularly silence? And what about that supremely non-descriptive generality that lives in the silence: “something fearsome and beautiful.” Yikers! If one of the writers working with me came up with that I’d call them on it right away. That sort of language is as informative and real as ads that tell you a detergent is bigger, better, improved. I for one, just don’t buy it.

And then the paragraph goes on and on about how powerful this vague, fierce something is, how it can’t be stopped. Well, I like Feena being powerless in the grip of anger, but I don’t think someone losing their temper has quite so much time to dwell on the intricacies of their tantrum or to personify it, for that matter! Feena’s a romantic, true; and she reads a great deal. But I think all that romance, that literary flair, would go right out the window when she’s on the verge of hitting the little boy she’s trying to save. In fact, it NEEDS to go out the window before Feena can learn that we’re all human and that we all have some pretty unromantic moments.

The solution? Harsh but necessary. OFF IT. It only hurts for a minute. And look how much better the passage holds together minus my exhibitionism.

So granted: A good book speaks through it’s story, not its author's voice or language. Yet it can’t become so transparent that it falls into the other extreme, a sort of voyeurism like the existentialist author, Robbe-Grillet’s, where the writer is no longer an artist at all, but a passive witness to objects and events. A camera that sees without emotion or feeling.

How do you strike the balance, then? How can you become lost in a story’s moment or character and still steer the craft? My way of equalizing things, is to free write with pencil and paper before I sit down to draft a chapter at the computer. By warming up this way, by tapping into a character away from my desk, I literally separate her from "the book," give her permission to say whatever she wants without regard to how she says it. Then, when I return to the computer, I continue to hear her voice in my head as I write. I’ve found this is an effective means of reigning in my editorial, intellectual, and yes, lyrical impulses, of putting them in their proper place – as assistants or handmaidens to the view point character.

And as handmaidens, these critical and aesthetic faculties still have plenty of constructive work to do. Once I'm wearing my Editor's hat, after all, I need to make a great many editorial and left-brained decisions my character simply can't. Fina, as I've said, is too busy living her story to care too much about how it plays out for a reader. That's my job, and if I've spent time with those free writes of hers, if I've incorporated her voice, her heart's fire, then I'll do it well. My writing will be full of “hot spots” where she speaks vividly, but without seeming forced or strained. It will be full of moments where she does what the readers knows she has to do, must do. Because I've helped them know her as well as I do. Because she exerts a sort of karmic inevitability over the story that I write and they read.  

So I like to think, years and years later, that Mrs. Dougherty may have been more right than she knew; that I AM, on my good days, a mirror writer. That whenever I look closely at a fictional moment, whenever I feel deeply what my characters’ feel, I hold a mirror up to my young readers; a mirror in which they see their own moments and feelings reflected. And if I’ve done the job I want to, if my language doesn't get in the way, they’ll say, “Ah, I never thought of my life in just that way. But yes, that’s how it is. And you know what, it’s pretty special.”


© Louise Hawes 2015