WP Update:
Ripping Out
12 April 2019

¶ At the beginning of the month, I printed out the section of the writing project that I am working on, and for a day or two I actually thought that it was ready to show to Kathleen. Thank goodness I didn’t. The growing sense that something was missing — an important element of my main idea — was resolved only by adding a few short passages, and a rather meager paragraph, to the once-apparent perfection of the printed draft. This threw everything out of proportion.

Working on the problem this afternoon, a matter of reading and thinking rather than writing or editing, I realized that I had never properly stated my main idea at all. The two pages in which I talked around it instead of explaining it would have to go, even if that meant losing some nice sentences and some interesting, lesser thoughts. That’s as far as I got today. Sometimes, a day of wretchedness and frustration end up with nothing but the certainty that pages of material can’t be fixed. Only amputation will do.

The writing project is teaching me, among many other painful lessons, that talking around things is a tendency of mine, not just an occasional misjudgment. It begins with nothing less innocent than the desire to soften the bluntness of crude assertions by making an oblique approach. As I proceed, this tactic degenerates into a game of twenty questions. At some point, I decide that only a dunce would not have figured out what I’m talking about, so I never do state what I came to say.

Or so it seems. I suspect that what’s really going on is that I don’t fully understand my big idea. (The giveaway is that fear of “crude assertions.”) The indirect approach is a well-worn way of concealing, or attempting to conceal, the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about, as I saw with painful clarity this afternoon. And the only way to find out what my big idea really is is to attack the difficulty of expressing it head-on.

I’m reminded of the first paper that I wrote in prep school. Accustomed to easy A’s in the past, I did not put too much effort into a short essay about a play, required summer reading, that I hadn’t actually read, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The paper came back marked “E” — Blair’s grading system being rigorously logical at the the time, proceeding directly from “D” to the next letter of the alphabet, instead of skipping over to “F.” For a moment I drew wild, ignorant relief from the supposition (which however I couldn’t take very seriously) that “E” stood for “Excellent.” Another straw to clutch was my not knowing the meaning of the big word in the teacher’s comment. I could guess, but I didn’t know. Mr Dorn had written, “This paper is a tissue of circumlocutions.” In this salutary way, my real education began. 

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