The virtues of writing that’s boring

Up close: A view of Weatherford's neon-lit mural.

Up close: Weatherford’s neon-lit mural.

Of the name Sartoris, Faulkner wrote: “For there is death in the sound of it,  and a glamorous fatality, like silver pennons downrushing at sunset, or a dying fall of horns along the road to Roncevaux.”

Malcolm Cowley used one word to describe that sentence:

“overwriting”

Really? Overwriting? The poetry of it stunned me (and still does); so did Cowley’s dismissal of it.  But I didn’t care — didn’t care what that crusty old critic thought; Malcolm, the writing in Flags in the Dust is still one of F’s best no matter what you think.

It’s the first time his vision of Yoknapatawpha ever fully rushed out of him.  I love that book’s enthusiasm, confidence, roughness, unevenness, humanity.  It’s Faulkner the flesh-and-blood writer long before he slipped into the great Southern persona of his later works.

But I remembered Cowley’s judgement last week as I listened to a public talk given by abstract painter Mary Weatherford at Claremont McKenna College. She said something that makes so much sense to me, even though she was talking about a mural, not a text.  She described how some parts of the mural don’t do anything special.  She kept them intentionally boring.  She said,

“It can’t all be interesting. There have to be boring parts. If it’s all interesting, it kills itself.  I had to make some parts boring so that other parts could flourish.”

When her interviewer protested against her use of the word “boring,” she revised herself. Instead, she said, she “quieted down” parts of her mural.  As I’ve been revising my own novel, this is essentially what I’ve been doing–quieting down some narrative sections in order to allow others to flourish.

 

SHHH: St. Nepomuk, patron saint of secrets and silence.

SHHH: St. Nepomuk, patron saint of secrets and silence.

 

When I look back at my earliest draft, I see a writer who’s trying so hard to make everything, every detail, every transition, into something interesting.  I’ve mentioned a little of that already in a previous post (“Writing and the six a.m. brain”) where I replaced an overwritten sentence with a simpler alternative.

This, for me, is the essence of the revision process.  I think it’s true whether you’re working with a text or a canvas and gallons of paint.

So, after listening to Weatherford, I thought, “Maybe Cowley was right.” Maybe Faulkner could have quieted down that closing sentence.

But he didn’t.  And I’m glad.  It’s a beautiful sentence.  Cowley’s still wrong — but at least I can understand better why he said it.

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9 responses

  1. I like the idea of quieting down your work. I tend to use longer sentences in my writing and I know that it can be frustrating for my readers. As a part of my editing process I have been trying to mix in more of the simple with the complex and that has been very useful for me. Accepting the quieter portions is a good way to look at things as well. Faulkner provides a good contrast to “complex” vs. quiet. Thank you for sharing.

  2. When writers talk about pacing, it sounds like they’re talking about the same thing that you’re doing in your own work. It’s my pleasure to share, but I appreciate your comment about mixing the simple with the complex. I think that’s totally what Mary Weatherford was getting at, too. Awesome to have an insight into your work here.

  3. I was astonished to learn of the good St. Nepomuk. I’ve never heard of him, and spent more time than I should have last night reading about him. What I still haven’t figured out (though I will) is whether the King Wenceslas who got after him is the same good king Wenceslas who went out on the Feast of Stephen. Surely not. I hope not. Ah, history. In any event, I’ve always considered St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes, to be a good one to oversee my writing process. I may have to bring in St. Nepomuk, too.

    As for the writing process itself, if that Faulkner sentence is overwriting, overwriting’s my goal. In my hands, a pile of words too often is just a pile of words, but to have enough control to pull off something like that sentence? It’s wonderful.

    I did find this in the midst of my comments this month, and it seems relevant here. A reader said:

    “I was once again enthralled by your word usage and how you string the words along to make the most interesting and enjoyable sentences. The wording is complex in a way but so easy to read. I hope what I just wrote is a compliment.”

    I was so delighted I copied out that paragraph and stuck it to the bottom of my computer monitor. It’s especially great that the comment came not from a “literary sort,” but from an entirely ordinary woman who devotes herself in retirement to animal rescue. I tried to make sure she understood she’d just given me one of the greatest compliments in the world.

  4. Isn’t St. Nepomuk great? I came across that stained-glass image months ago, and when I heard Weatherford talk about quieting her work, it just clicked.

    I’ve felt the same way when I’ve read your blog, Shoreacres — so many of your posts are more than simple posts, they’re drafts of essays and books in embryo. I hope you get many more such comments from perceptive visitors to your site. You deserve them!

    St. Jude — I never thought of that. As I close in on my book’s conclusion, I think I should start a novena.

  5. Oh, how I love that sentence, too. If every sentence on every page were written that way, it could be called overwriting–unless, of course it works, as teachers will often tell you. In that respect, art is whatever you can get away with.

    I think your point can be extended to all art forms. And now that you’ve called it to my attention, I’ll take it in and incorporate it into my own work. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Adjusting the Pace: Writing that Moves | Prospective Perspectives

  7. Ah! This reminds me of a drawing I did in high school that was overwrought. I was excited about all the designs and patterns I could think of and included them all. My teacher advised me to include “resting spots” for the eye so as not to overwhelm the viewer.

    I do get overwhelmed when I read very descriptive stories with no “resting spots.” At those times I put the book down and take a break or don’t return at all. The same goes for really long sentences that aren’t interspersed with shorter ones, which makes me think of Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, and her chapter on sentences.

  8. Weatherford’s idea of “boredom” just seems right to me. I agree with you: I’ve had the experience of reading books where every sentence is overwrought, and it leaves me feeling exhausted. thanks for your comment

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