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…