Every week the New Yorker seems to leave my very favorite article from their issue off the site for everyone but subscribers (which is fine for me, as a subscriber, but annoying when I want to link to it). Last week it was most definitely the piece by Rachel Mead on twin poets Matthew and Michael Dickman. Generally the piece goes through their history and discusses how interesting it is that they’ve developed styles that are almost polar opposites of each other.
While reading I ended up underlining two small sections, not because of their poetry, but rather their general insight into the world. The first is a comment on good writing and avoiding cliche. Michael and Matthew are critiquing each other’s work and Matthew points out that the phrase “beat the shit” and specifically the word “shit”, “Has too much resonance with other poems of yours.”
In the next paragraph Michael is working through a poem of Matthew’s that describes “a late-night encounter with a pretty idiotic girl.” It’s described like this, “The woman sitting next to me calls her Summer / and keeps touching her lips / and scratching her thigh / and ordering a martini / and talking about history.”
“‘The hem of her dress’ — that’s sort of like the ‘beat the shit out of’ in my poem. I was just reading this interview with Mark Strand, and he says you should be very suspect of clusters of words. If a cluster of words comes at you, it was probably written by someone else, and if it wasn’t written by someone else it was probably already written by you.”
Which immediately took me back to some writing tips I try to adhere to. First, avoid cliche whenever possible. This is roughly the same thing as Michael was saying to Matthew, just put a little more bluntly. Rather than relying on another writer’s words to explain your idea, try using your own. I’m not always successful with this one, but I at least try to keep it in mind. The other comes from The Elements of Style and is about getting to the point. Under the heading of “Omit needless words.” Strunk explains:
Vigourous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
I’m pretty sure this is the biggest issue in writing: People get so precious with their own words that they’re not willing to throw them away and try again (or just trust that the rest of the writing gets the point across).
Okay, now onto the other quote from the article which has nothing to do with writing at all. In talking about the neighborhood Matthew and Michael grew up in, Wendy, their mother, explains, “I didn’t know the changes were going to happen. We had these wonderful neighbors, but I didn’t realize what was there if you went outside our block. I would drive to work, come back, and park my car in the driveway, and I rarely walked anywhere. The boys did a lot of walking, and they were exposed to things that I wasn’t.”
So clearly this one has little to do with writing, but it has lots to do with noticing. I haven’t read any serious amount of Jane Jacobs myself, though I expect she wouldn’t be overly surprised by this quote. Much of life happens from at the street level and your mode of transportation has a huge effect on the way you experience that world.
I always like going to London for this reason (well, sort of this reason). While I walk around New York all the time, much of life happens above you, out of sight. In London, on the other hand, much of business is conducted on the ground level (at least in the Soho area). Getting a peek into businesses is a treat you rarely get to experience around Manhattan, where not much more than lobbies and elevators occupy the ground floor.
Anyway, that’s about it. Really just wanted to share those quotes. Hope you enjoyed.