For the next several weeks, we will republish our favorite “Teaching Lessons” columns from this year.
When I first began sending out my work, the returned manuscripts sometimes included breezy notes, Good luck! or Try us again. But once, New Yorker editor Mary Kierstead appended this: You need to learn to write badly.
Well, I never. What was she on about? I was putting myself through this torture only because I wrote well. I trashed the slip and vowed never to submit to The New Yorker again. But the advice nagged at me. I started noting instances in the work of my favorite authors where the prose stuttered, circumnavigated, repeated itself, failed to vary its syntax. I thought of Elizabeth Bowen’s advice for writing dialogue, or perhaps narrative generally: “Effect of choking (as in engine): more to be said than can come through.” All my fancy words—the clever metaphors, the alternatives to he said or the verb to be—were like air filling the chamber when what it needed was fuel.
What Kierstead was telling me, I think, was to abandon my cleverness in favor of the cadences of my characters, including their silences and stumblings. If the writing was inelegant, so be it, but every word would be put to the service of the story and left in the trust of the reader.
I still struggle. I long to use words like penumbra and viscid and hate giving them up for shadow and sticky. But I try to choke the fine writing off. What can’t come through does come through, in the end, and all our velocity depends on it.
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