Purity of Prose is to Write One Thing


Readers who follow my postings know my habit of keeping a series of “snippets” at the bottom of my computer monitor.    Rarely inspirational in any traditional sense, they give me encouragement and perspective.  Ranging from full quotations to simple phrases, some are posted only a day or two before being consigned to oblivion. Others may stay for a month, or are posted and reposted as I consider and re-consider their meaning.  Only one snippet has earned the privilege of continuous posting, a reader’s utterly perfect description of our beloved computers as “infernal persnickity timesuckers”.  Taken separately, each word is apt.  Taken together, they form a verbal perfect storm that never fails to sweep my mind clean of whatever cyber-frustrations have built up.

Another favorite was reposted today: Soren Kierkegaard’s famous phrase,  “Purity of heart is to will one thing”.    The first of his Edifying Addresses to be translated into English, it was written in 1846 and included in the volume, Edifying Addresses of Varied Tenor,  published in 1847.  I’ve always wished that particular edifying address had the same direct beauty of the title.  I can’t read Kierkegaard – too dense, too convoluted, too formally philosophical – and I’ve never made it all the way through his essay.  But I’ve always felt the phrase to be utterly true, even though I see its truth only partially, as though with sideways glances.

The “willing of one thing” came to mind today as I pondered my continuing frustration with a short piece I’ve been trying to bring to completion.   For nearly two months I’ve twiddled with sentences, re-arranged paragraphs, rephrased thoughts and shuffled ideas, to no avail.  All of the pieces seem right, but when I nudge them next to each other on the page, they simply lie there exhausted, with no sense of life or energy.  Today as I worked, allowing my mind to wander, Kierkegaard’s words suddenly reappeared, immediately recognizable and yet utterly transformed:

Purity of prose is to write one thing. 

Startled beyond words, I wondered: had my subconscious been at work?   Was it my Muse, back from one of her famous day trips to Poughkeepsie?  Had my efforts to force the essay in one direction kept me from seeing it preferred to head off in another?   Dragging the essay from its hiding place and reading it again, I was startled beyond words to find not one essay, but two.  My original wonderful idea was walking hand in hand with a second, equally wonderful idea.  If my essay were dessert, it wouldn’t be chocolate cake and ice cream, it would be chocolate cake and apple pie.  There simply was too much.

The problem of “too much” is real.  Characters, ideas, or plots show up uninvited,  and they intend to stay.  Authors have been thinking it over for centuries.   Samuel Johnson said, “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”  Thoreau, speaking of life,  might as well have been talking about writing when he said, “Simplify, simplify…”  

 Annie Dillard describes the irony of it all in her book, The Writing Life:  “The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point.  It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin. “

And so, with the encouragement of the ages, I begin again.   No longer content to tweak sentences or chose different words, I begin to jettison entire paragraphs.  As I do, a clearer structure emerges, and a sense of renewed life for the words which it supports.   Best of all, that second wonderful idea is still at hand, ready to be developed in its own way.  Purity of prose may be to write one thing, but it never is to write just once.  “Write your one thing,” whispers the Muse, “and write it well.”   And then, write the next thing.  And the next.  And the next…

Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

11 thoughts on “Purity of Prose is to Write One Thing

  1. The cure is to read some non-fiction.. it will clear your mind :) check some out in my blog,

  2. Ah, a wonderful suggestion, were it not for the fact that I read almost entirely non-fiction. Perhaps a bit of Tom Clancy is what I need. However, I surely will have a visit to your site – perhaps some different non-fiction will help move things along!

  3. Any subject beyound a mathematical equation is drawn from someone elses perspective and therefore is tinted with fiction however pure the intention.

  4. Hi, Nanette!

    What’s that I see rising from its grave like a vampire? It’s the old fact/fiction/truth connundrum!
    Quick! Bring me a silver Cross pen, so I can plunge it into the heart of the argument!

    The only problem I’ve ever had with late-night folks roaming around is that you tend to get my creative juices flowing just when I should be going to bed. I’m going to resist the temptation for more comment now, and just go drift off to dreamland with visions of vampire-philosophers wafting through my head. Thanks for the greeting & comment – Wonderful fun!

  5. Ahh the curse of nocturnal employment is comparisons to Bram Stoker when I so much prefer Ann Rice though she rides on the shoulders of a giant.
    Perhaps the greatest reply to the fiction/truth conundrum came in 1897 by way of an editorial penned by Francis P Church for The New York Sun.

  6. Indeed. And when Church answered young Virginia with these words – “They think nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds” – it was only an echo of the words Shakespeare gave to Hamet when he says, “There is more in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy”.

    Welcome to late night, where Kierkegaard, Ann Rice,
    Francis Church and Shakespeare snuggle up against a real life issue: eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asking about the existence of Santa Claus… Here’s the link: http://www.newseum.org/yesvirginia/

  7. Hi Linda, what’s up?

    I owe you some feedback as I promised, so here I go!

    – I like your template. It aptly fits in to your writer theme. So that’s good work done.

    – You are a very talented writer. Very talented indeed. So how do you get yourself across the world? Linda, you are making people NOT find you by using highly complex tags…which you can simplify. For eg, in this post, “Annie Dillard, editing, essays, Kierkegaard, Muse, Thoreau” are your tags. Honestly, less than 1% would actually surf these tags. Make it easy! I’d suggest, as I did to many, to use simple tags: for eg, in this post, you could use – “thoughts, interesting, writing, ideas, inspiration, all, random”. You can find many more useful tags on Global Tags page.

    I admire your “snippet” concept. Good. That’s being creative. Why don’t you put that in the tags too? – Snippets, Snippet? And have interesting headlines.

    See you,
    (leave a comment if you ever have a doubt, and make sure you read important tips part 2 on my blog, many thanks!)

  8. I, too, still have “infernal persnickety timesuckers” stuck to my monitor. It’s a great phrase, and I love your comment on it.

    As I read this blog, I was transported back to my senior year in high school. Our English teacher had us write an outline for a theme, and then we wrote a one-paragraph eassy. (Yawn… been there, done that.) After editing, rewriting, employing Roget, expanding to include more complex sentences, copying (no computers back then!), and finally feeling done, the teacher did the unthinkable – he handed back our outlines and had us expand them into a three-paragraph theme!

    We worked those over and over until we each had a couple of pages nearly worthy of publication. Imagine our astonishment and dismay when he handed back the outline, yet again, to be expanded into a five-paragraph masterpiece! I learned a great deal from that exercise, and I’m sorry now that I whispered such derogatory remarks to fellow students in the corridors.

    I’ve enjoyed many of your blogs because of the layers. It seems to me that you weave together two or three ideas that are told from the same outline, and then you tie them all together. The structure of your writing appeals to me, as the parallels and layers flow along together without disruption and turbulence.

    We all experience reading thoughts, opinions, philosophy, etc., on a different level, and often we seem to relate personally, as I have done here. Your essays seem to elicit quite a wide array of responses.

    Write on!

  9. Hi, NumberWise ~ I love that English teacher of yours! Just think – given enough time and patience, he could have had you writing War and Peace!

    It’s been interesting for me to go to the Writers’ League meetings and listen to folks talk about their processes. Many, many of them declare with absolute firmness that the only way to approach things is to write a piece all the way through, and then go back and start editing.

    I just don’t work that way. Occasionally, I’ll end up with the final paragraphs first (the best three paragraphs I’ve ever written are done, waiting for the rest of the article to show up) but I use what I only can call an “organic” approach. I’ll work on paragraph one, and then when its about right I start creeping into paragraph two. I don’t write these things as much as I mold them, if that makes any sense.

    Someone told me that Annie Dillard has talked about this, but I haven’t found it in her writings yet. I’m still reading.

    I did have someone tell me recently that my pieces read like an extended metaphor rather than a true essay. Maybe that accounts for the layers and parallels…. hybridized, that’s what it is! Poetry meets polemics. Whatever, it surely is fun!

    Thanks for the comments – always great to have you stop by.

  10. I know something in my heart is true, I go with it.
    I do not need to dissect what I know, i don’t need to analyze the hearts reasons. This is a common theme of Kierkegaard.

    Purity of prose is to write one thing.
    That is a terrific restatement!

    So the writer who is a journalist at heart, is that the journalist, etc.

    As I writer I am a poet at heart, and that what I write the most of, I don’t need to know the reasoning I like poetry, or to try to be a Journalist which I am not.

    you have tied the wisdom of Kierkegaard with a common phrase:
    “write what you know!”
    I say “write what you are!”
    Purity of prose is to write one thing!

    Chris ~

    Thank you so much for your wonderful comments, and your kind words regarding my little “restatement”. I have always appreciated that there are two ways of “knowing” – one which is more rational and intellectual, and one which is based in the heart. Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t do as well at making such distinctions, so we have to fumble around a bit. But you’ve said it well from both perspectives: write what you know, and write what you are. Mind and heart, together…

    Look forward to following your posts, as well. Have a safe holiday!


  11. Linda: The Purity of Prose is to Write One Thing is a superb essay. Words are really pictures and you paint beautifully.

    The quote from Annie Dillard is apt. Her book, “The Writing Life”, is unparalleled. Thanks for bringing her and Kierkegaard together in the same piece–an amazing feat.


    Sometimes, I fancy my writing as a wonderful dinner party ~ I delight in bringing together a mix of interesting people, and seating the most unlikely companions next to one another. I’ve loved Annie Dillard for years, and came to her long before any thought of writing crossed my mind. Now, of course, “The Writing Life” is always close at hand. I take it like a good tonic ~ just a sentence here, a paragraph there, to stimulate and energize.

    Speaking of interesting people, I’ve been browsing through your other site. There are some lovely tonics lined up on the shelves there, too!

    Many thanks for stopping by, and for the kind words.


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