“If I were you, I’d just drop the big words altogether.”
I sink lower in my chair, cheeks blossoming crimson.
“And the 10 adjectives and five adverbs stuff, I mean, really. Stop. Stop with all the inflated distraction. It really takes away from your writing. Just say what you want to say. Say it simple. Say it straight.”
Tears begin to stream down into my lap. I look at the Navajo rug at my feet. I remember C.J. Baker, the editor of the Tribune, telling me someone on staff remarked how I sure do use a lot of adjectives in my writing. What a fool I was to have taken that as a compliment!
My words aren’t eloquent, I realize, but convoluted. A writer I admire sits at my kitchen table mercilessly exposing the empty “grandiosity” of my words.
“It’s easy to tell you’re passionate,” he rocks back in his chair, shakes his head. “But you’re so over the top with the words you use to express that passion that you overshare. As a result, any passion or meaning you might have conveyed to readers is lost completely.”
A sob escapes my burning chest.
“Hey, now,” he says. “I wouldn’t tell you all this if I didn’t think you were a good writer. You’ve got potential. C’mon now.”
He rises and steps over to give my quivering back a reassuring pat.
“Now, listen to me,” he scolds, sitting back down and fixing his eye on me. “You’re fine. I know just what you need. You need to read more Hemingway. Some more Hemingway, and you’ll be all right.”
After that comment, I sort of stopped listening — once you’ve read one Hemingway, you’ve read them all — but some of this fellow writer’s other words hit me hard that night.
Sure, he didn’t have to be such a jerk about his presentation. Yet his message rang with resonance: To expose the heart of my writing, I must cut away all decoration.
When I sent my older brother Hal the first draft of my last column for the Tribune, he suggested some cuts. I agreed with his edits and bemoaned my tendency to overwrite. Hal beamed back a Bruce Lee quote that I now wonder — with considerable sincerity and frequency — whether I should sport as my first tattoo: “Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away.”
(Upon further consideration, the irony of tattooing this phrase might outweigh the profundity of it.)
Bruce’s words harmonized my feeling toward my writer friend’s lecturing. What I initially suffered as a humiliating personal attack flourished into empowering professional advice.
Clearly, I still use too many adjectives. But, thanks to some good advice, I like to think I’m getting better at getting down to the good stuff.
The difference between this being a happy story and a sad one — between a writer who elevates herself to the next level of wordcraft and a writer who gives up — lies in the joy of discovering a way to get better rather than getting caught up in the fact that you’ve got a long way to go.
A writer, like any creator, always can improve her craft. She always can learn to say more with less. If a writer is serious about becoming better, she gratefully accepts any advice that helps hone her art.
Here we arrive at a vital distinction: constructive advice versus destructive deception. Only the individual artist knows, in her own heart, how to tell which advice is worthy of her attention and incorporation and which is not. She must only consider counsel that will benefit the beauty and integrity of her art.
Despite the gruffness with which my writer friend delivered his counsel — and how roughly it rubbed my tender heart — I knew absolutely that what he said was true, and that it wasn’t me the person who needed to hear his words, but me the writer.
Sometimes that which helps us grow first would seem to cut us down.
I’m just glad Bruce Lee’s spirit materialized to remind me I must “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically [my] own.”
Therefore, I reject the tone of my friend’s admonishment; I adapt the usefulness of his advice; and I add to the world a new and improved style of writing, one that is specifically my own.
As I drop deeper into refinement, I write less with big words, and more with big feeling.