A little playfulness goes a long way

I look at much of my blogging as writing practice, or more accurately thinking practice. I like the challenge of taking thoughts that are new, intriguing to me, and nowhere near worked out, and trying to pull it all together into something coherent on paper. The writing practice is secondary, but a strong second. More and more often I look back on something I wrote and think, “This is better writing than I remembered it to be.” That’s pretty satisfying.

I enjoy wordplay as much as anyone, but I also know I need to keep that enjoyment from getting in the way of more important objectives.  What is fun to me might provide fun for the reader, but at the same time distract from the message I’m conveying. In those cases I opt to be a stick in the mud, sacrificing fun for effectiveness.

I expect that most good writers enjoy words in this way … but I know that not every writer who enjoys words in this way ends up a good writer. I think the exact same thing happens to many singers; they discover the joys of sound, and tone, and the way well-written lines can roll off one’s tongue, and the fun you can have varying your phrasing to work with or against the rhythm. But then lesser singers make the mistake of being guided by their own pleasure, doing things they find stimulating or intriguing or enjoyable, without a thought to whether their stylings (which are quickly becoming affectations) are adding to or subtracting from the pleasure of the listener.

And I’m not talking about subtle things, either; early on I noticed things in my singing which, while fun for me, were making it hard for others to understand the words. Next, I began to notice what made the phrasing of some of my favorite singers so good was that they were able to make the words roll out as if they were talking in a relaxed, transparent manner, while less experienced singers doing the same material would sound sing-songy because their phrasing was determined by the music, not the message being communicated.

Bluegrass singing is at its heart storytelling, and one key principle of good bluegrass singing is that all styling that is applied must be in service of the story. Some of it is positive, e.g. phrasing a line so that the vowels of the most important words can be stretched as far as possible, and some of it is negative, e.g. avoiding phrasing that give a line a radically different rhythm than it would have if it were spoken.

The exact same concerns are operative  in writing. There’s nothing wrong with word play, and sometimes it can be an added delight–but not if it detracts from the message at hand by becoming a sort of winking or mugging. I think that’s the proper application of Faulkner’s idea that you must kill all your darlings. You have to look at those particularly tasty turns of phrase and be ruthless about eliminating them–not absolute, but ruthless. Some will be able to justify their continued existence, but others do more to point up your own cleverness than they do to strengthen the message. I suffer from a large vocabulary, and so I have a rule (that I don’t apply as ruthlessly as I should) that the bigger the word, the more powerfully it needs to nail the meaning I’m looking for in order to avoid being replaced by a smaller one.

I won’t name names, but it is not too hard to find examples of writing where the playfulness has been taken to an extreme that the opinion conveyed is not worth the effort it takes to dig it out from the pseudo-Chestertonian phrasing some writer delighted in burying it under. The passage ends up being 10% message, 90% look at me!

A little playfulness goes a long way. Strive for 100% message, 0% look at me.

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2 thoughts on “A little playfulness goes a long way

  1. I came to the computer to edit a piece I am writing for our local homeschooling newsletter. It is a pretty straightforward article but I added a running theme of summertime. My favorite line or darling in the piece was :” But it is July and we would really like to sit by the pool with a lemonade and a Grisham.” I had to laugh when the editor wrote back and said, “What does that mean?” I am still tempted to leave it in because I think it personalizes a rather dry selection but it probably needs to go.

    I have watched a few minutes of the show The Voice and I noticed that while the contestants had beautiful voices they were dwarfed when the celebrity sang with them. It obviously takes more than just a great voice to be a great performer.

  2. I just bought Hemingway’s _A Moveable Feast_, and I stood in the bookstore reading it aloud to my daughter as an example of clear, lucid, and good writing. We had been wandering about noticing all the BAD books that people buy and love and praise for their “good writing.” Ick. Give me a Grisham any day. :-)

    The 100 per cent message vs. 0 per cent me is especially important in sermons, but the temptation to be clever, or funny, is too much for many.

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