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The Power and Beauty of Restraint

Check out this fine post by Chris Jones at his blog, “Son of Bold Venture” (named after a horse in W.C. Heinz’s classic column, “Death of a Racehorse”).

Here’s Jones:

It’s probably the hardest lesson in writing: learning when you’ve already written enough.

We’re taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight. Logically, then, the more words, the better the sentence or paragraph or story. But writing isn’t always a logical exercise. Sometimes—most of the time—it’s about things that are harder to measure.

My editor, Peter—he will hate that I’m about to praise him in public—is one of the best in the business. He’s particularly good at carving the little excesses from a story that might either push it into sentimentality or turn the screw a little too hard. Because I’m often writing about emotional subjects, I’m especially dependent on Peter’s eye and knife. He just seems to know when even the smallest trim will serve the story. Peter understands restraint. He knows the value and power and weight of the words that aren’t there.

The older I get, the more I am drawn to restraint in cooking, moviemaking, music, and writing. It takes courage and discipline, not to mention confidence, to show restraint, to leave things out.

I e-mailed Glenn Stout, editor of the Best American Sports Writing series, about Jones’ post. He replied via e-mail:

Well, I’ve always thought it important to note that “In the beginning was the word…” Not “In the beginning was the words…” Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that more stories are ruined by underwriting rather than overwriting, because I see a lot of work in which the writer appears to have missed an opportunity, I will say that more ambitious stories could probably use more restraint. That’s one of the reasons I think that writers of any stripe should read poetry – it not only teaches tangible things like economy, sound and rhythm, but it also teaches that the negative space in writing – what’s not there, and the heartbeat of recognition that takes place over the empty space at the end of a line or a phrase – is as important as what is on the page. The way we connect with a piece of writing is how our brain fills in the blanks.

It’s like backing away from a painting rather than standing too close.

I understand negative space when it comes to painting, like in Giorgio Morandi’s wonderful still life pictures, but have only recently come to appreciate it in writing as well. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy expressionists, just that I am more drawn to writers like Heinz and Pat Jordan, Elmore Leonard and Pete Dexter.

My pal John Schulian also sent the following e-mail:

The interesting thing about this is that Chris Jones writes with such restraint in the first place. For him to go public with a confession that even he needs an editor to keep his prose from going over the edge is truly remarkable. And instructive. Every writer caves in to his worst instincts sooner or later. Problem is, not every writer has an editor as sharp as Jones’s Peter (I assume he means Peter Griffin, Esquire’s deputy editor). Also, not every editor is working with a writer as wonderful as Chris Jones. Not that the wonderful-ness of a writer would stop some editors from screwing up their prose. But the trims that Peter made were as artful and restrained as what Jones wrote. They eliminated the unnecessary and, just as important, preserved the rhythm of Jones’ prose. Peter heard the music and left no fingerprints, and that, perhaps, is the ultimate proof of his artistry as a line editor. No wonder Jones saluted him.

It is not easy to find a good editor. Jones has it good and seems to know it. Perhaps the most instructive book I’ve read about editing is Susan Bell’s “The Artful Edit.” It’s an essential guide for me and rests next to “The Elements of Style” on my night table. Bell uses the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor Maxwell Perkins throughout her text.

Dig this one example from “The Great Gatsby.” First, from a rough draft:

They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just blown in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments on the threshold, dazzled by the alabaster light, listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.

And then revised for the the final version:

They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.

Fitzgerald dropped “dazzled by the alabaster light…” a vivid, but ultimately, distracting flourish. Man, you’ve got to be ruthless to murder your darlings. It is nothing short of inspiring when the great talents have the conviction to do just that.

[Painting by Girogio Morandi]


1 thelarmis   ~  Jan 27, 2011 2:36 pm

i understand the "less is more" concept, and sometimes it is rather effective. but this should not universally dismiss the "more is more" side of things.

i actually like the original draft of the Great Gatsby sentence. i'm a "comma" fan, so i do dig the comma in the revision, but i definitely miss the "dazzled by the alabaster light...". i don't find the flourish distracting, at all; in fact, i find it captivating. without that detail, it's sorta dull. i like the word "threshold" in there, too...

i'm all about simple and minimalistic music, but i'm also *very* much into deep expression with a lot of chops. tons of notes, busy & complex rhythms, fast tempos. those characteristics don't all have to be combined.

i find that a lot of people simply dismiss busy/fast/complex music. file it under categories of "technical" and the like. usually, in my experience, it's by folks that don't have the capacity to understand the emotional depth and deep musical understanding of the player. and i'm talking multiple genres here - classical, jazz, indian classical, fusion, heavy metal, et al.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 27, 2011 2:42 pm

2) Interesting points, thanks man. I'm not into minimalism and I think restraint is different than that. The other thing that is unfair about the Gatsby example, I admit, is that while I prefer the final sentence to the original, it's hard to tell out of context. Perhaps, the "dazzled" line works or doesn't work even more in the context of the page, chapter, etc.

One thing that comes to mind is a Vin Scully call I heard a few years ago. Remember when the Dodgers hit four straight homers in a game and later won it on a grand slam? Well, I heard about it and clicked on MLB to see the highlights. I found Scully's calls to be so non-existent that it was troubling (this coming from someone who is accustomed to Michael Kay's histrionics). Then a few days later I visited a friend, a Dodger fan, who had the game on dvr. When I watched the entire inning, Scully's lack of drama fit perfectly, it just was lousy as a highlight sound bite.

3 thelarmis   ~  Jan 27, 2011 3:01 pm

[2] i hear ya, man. yeah, i sure do remember those 4 straight homers. off 2 padres relievers - one of which was trevor hoffmann - and nomar was one of the batters. i could be wrong on those memories, but... i didn't hear scully's call(s). or, if i did, on the highlights, i don't remember them.

maybe i shouldn't have used the word "minimalistic." i do like some minimalism, but i'm not a huge fan. i was using it as a poor substitute for simply playing *simply*.

i never read the Great Gatsby (i'm not much of a book reader...), so i was just commenting on the quote that was here.

i also think 'restraint' might not be a perfect correlation between writing and music. there are similarities, certainly, but not a flat out comparison. overall, i might prefer it in writing, 'coz i'm not a great reader. i like and appreciate it in music, but i generally prefer 'fuller' playing.

i'm kinda sensitive to this sorta thing as an artist who makes a living expressing himself through notes & rhythms. sometimes, i have a lot to say. sometimes, i don't. i understand both schools and have found the 'simpler' crowd never really understands the 'busy/overplaying' crowd and has harsh feelings towards them. however, you don't see that the other way around too very often.

on most of my jobs, i'm required to play "less." this is more than fine and i thoroughly enjoy it. but when i get in a situation where i'm allowed to let loose, i feel like a caged tiger that just got a ticket to the wild and i'm rip-roarin' ready to embark upon a cathartic run through the jungle.

4 The Mick536   ~  Jan 27, 2011 4:44 pm

[1] My wife used to be a copy editor. She abhors commas. I write stream of conscious stuff. She x's the crap out of it. I hope you will have the time to read Gatsby. I go back once a year to hear different voices and to see scenes that I never saw before.

[2] As for Morandi, one of my favorites, my drawing teacher told me to check him out for a project called copy someone's work and then do your own. He may only have a few items on the canvas, but his work be far from minimal. Neither what I copied nor what I drew made any sense.

[2] As for the late Mr. Heinz, you know we share the utmost respect for him. At the mere mention of the story, I reread it before writing this post. Sheer genius.

Attended a Charles Lloyd Quartet concert Sunday night. He is a minimalist, I think. He said at a pre-concert lecture, and I am paraphrasing just a bit, "... if I could find one note, one perfect note, that would be enough for me." Guy lives on a very high plane, he does.

5 thelarmis   ~  Jan 27, 2011 5:32 pm

[4] ha! yeah, i definitely use way way waaaaay too many commas! if, you, know, what, i, mean, haha!

my jazz trio - when we were working regularly - used to play "One Note Samba". great tune!

6 RIYank   ~  Jan 27, 2011 5:36 pm

Yeah, not too surprising that a Rimsky-Korsakov guy likes fuller music with plenty of notes!

I hate to say it, sounds so wishy-washy, but I like both styles. Depends on the context. I love Thomas Wolfe (not Tom so much) and Michael Chabon, both writers of lush thickets of words. But I also admire Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett.

7 RIYank   ~  Jan 27, 2011 5:38 pm
8 thelarmis   ~  Jan 27, 2011 6:19 pm

[6/7] i also like both Curtis Fuller and vampires. so there's that...

i guess you can call me a Comma Chameleon. eh eh eh

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