“I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”
Clarice Lispector, Brazilian author and columnist
“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
William Zinsser, American journalist and writer
A couple of weeks ago, I reflected upon the above Lispector and Zinsser’s quotes. My immediate reaction was that words are weird. We drive on parkways and park in driveways. We send shipments by car and cargo by ship. We buy a TV set but only receive one television. We pronounce “school” with a “k”, but pronounce “change” with a “cha”. Both etymology and history provide clues to these ironies, but only the most learned delve to those depths. And I wondered, “Do even the most learned understand why a wise man is considered smart whereas a wise guy is a fool?”
I considered, too, many other mysteries of life. Why does a man wanting to attract a woman wear cologne scented like a dead rat, when chocolate around his neck would be a more successful strategy? And why are we compelled to touch the bench with the “wet paint” sign attached to it, as if we need proof that the sign is not lying to us? And why is it that men beating on one another is considered bonding, while women doing the same is called a catfight? Does our writing become pompously frilly or filled with circular constructions when we try to explain the unexplainable?
As writers, we are told to write simply but life is anything but simple. If the admonition is to “show, not tell,” shouldn’t complicated lives be revealed through complex sentences? Writers’ minds are cluttered with thoughts, ideas, stories clamoring to get out. Our filing cabinets overflow with half-finished novels, poems and narratives; and sticky notes line the edges of our desks and counter-tops, keeping safe the brainstorms we had in the middle of the night. If our lives are so untidy, is it even possible to write without the cloudiness Zinsser calls a disease?
We are told to write what we know. What we know is that chaos and beauty co-exist, and self-control wars with the desire to throw off the shackles of boundaries; love, joy and peace are marred by suffering, misery, and doubt; and the rational and illogical work together side by side. Who can capture such things with simplicity?
Yet, simplicity continues to be the aim. Even within one particular faith tradition, an age-old story has been handed down through the generations about an audience waiting with bated breath to hear what a very old disciple had to say. He shuffled center stage, said, “Love one another,” and sat down.
Three words to capture a lifetime of living and ministry? Is this how a writer is to write? Paring down our thoughts to their barest essence? But then, what becomes of the story from which the grain was gleaned? And what to do with the absurd? When a character asks, “If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?” do we simply let the question speak for itself? If Lispector speaks the truth about simplicity taking enormous effort, can we be blamed for wanting to write the easy way?
We’re warned not to use a paragraph where a word will do, but who today knows what a bibble is? Are writers to refrain from its use because no one knows its meaning? Or rather, can we write an amusing, lengthy anecdote about a man slurping and spilling his soup and smacking his lips in appreciation as he sips his toddy afterwards?
In a world of complexity, can we embrace the use of weird words, circular construction and pompous frill when needed, while also appreciating the need to weed out unnecessary words? Let’s not limit writers to always saying what they mean and never meaning what they say. Let’s allow writing to simply be what it needs to be, whether complex or simple, as long as it remains true to writer and reader.