Novelist Dorothy Sayers’ most well-known character, the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, is welcome to his opinion that “a facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought”, but he’ll not dissuade me from my fondness for quotations. I collect pithy selections from other writers’ work and correspondence with an enthusiasm usually reserved for baseball card traders or fans of architectural remnants. I’ve always found a good quotation focuses my attention, helping to make another person’s wit or wisdom accessible in new and useful ways.
Like any collector, I enjoy showing off my treasures. A few of my favorites are posted here. Occasionally I pass along tidbits I find especially piquant or amusing via Twitter, but most of the time I go old-school, taping current favorites to the bottom of my computer monitor. Rarely inspirational in any traditional sense, these hand-written snippets are meant to provide the kind of wacky encouragement and perspective I find stimulating.
They change frequently and vary according to the nature of my current frustration. Only one has earned the privilege of continuous posting, a friend’s utterly perfect description of our beloved computers as “infernal persnickety time-suckers”. Taken separately, each word is apt. Taken together, they bubble up into a perfect verbal storm that never fails to make me laugh, even as it washes my mind clean of whatever cyber-frustrations have built up around my desk.
A couple of years ago, I scotch-taped a favorite line from Søren Kierkegaard to the bottom of my monitor. The phrase, “Purity of heart is to will one thing” also happens to be the title of the first of his Edifying Addresses to be translated into English. Written in 1846, the essay was included in the book Edifying Addresses of Varied Tenor, published in 1847.
I’ve always wished that first “edifying address” had the same direct beauty of the title. I barely can read Kierkegaard – he’s too dense, too convoluted, too formally philosophical – and I’ve never made it all the way through the essay. Still, I’ve always felt that single phrase to be as lovely and true as any in the world, even though I see its truth only partially, with hidden and sideways glances.
Some time after posting Kierkegaard’s words, I found myself struggling with a short piece which seemed determined to avoid publication. As I twiddled with the sentences, re-arranging words and rephrasing thoughts, I became increasingly frustrated. Individually, each of the paragraphs seemed exactly right. Unfortunately, when I nudged them next to one another on the page, they became limp and exhausted, devoid of energy and life.
Drained of energy myself after hours of word-herding, I pushed back my chair, thinking to trundle into the kitchen and make a cup of coffee. The words of a long-dead Danish philosopher were the last thing on my mind as I reached for the coffee pot, but there was no mistaking the source of the insight that came to me between the dishwasher and the stove. Søren himself might as well have been in my kitchen, whispering the words into my ear.
Purity of prose is to write one thing.
Startled beyond words, I stopped. Where did that come from? Had my subconscious been at work? Was the ghost of Kierkegaard roaming the house? Did I have a Muse who’d taken pity on me, flying in on the red-eye from Newark to set me straight?
Whatever the source of my insight, I turned again to the manuscript. Reading it through my new Kierkegaardian lenses, I was chagrined to discover not one essay, but two. My original wonderful idea was walking hand in hand with a second, equally wonderful idea. If my essay had been dessert, it wouldn’t have been chocolate cake and ice cream. It would have been chocolate cake and apple pie. There simply was too much.
Anyone with an urge to write knows the problem of “too much”. Invite two characters for dinner, and three arrive at the door. Plots show up uninvited, trailing sub-plots behind them like groupies. Staid old paragraphs you haven’t seen for years suddenly appear, just passing through the neighborhood. Even though the manuscript is getting crowded, it seems a shame to turn them away. They’re attractive and interesting, if a little time-worn, and they surely could add something by their presence.
It’s an old, old problem, one that authors have been thinking about for centuries. Samuel Johnson said, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
Thoreau was speaking of life, but he might as well have been advising a writer when he said, “Simplify, simplify…”
And wonderful Mark Twain, who knew a thing or two about writing, offered this in a letter to Emeline Beach in 1868: “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement… Anybody can have ideas. The difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”
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. “
Dillard is right. Simplification brings a clearer structure to the whole and renewed vitality to those words we choose to keep. It also brings surprises, as words are unpredictable, with remarkably strong ideas about how they should be arranged.
Still, the marvel of literary brush-clearing is that nothing is lost in the process. Those second, third and fourth wonderful ideas remain ready at hand, waiting to be developed in their own way and time as novels or essays, stories or scripts.
After all, 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, simple and pure. Then, write the next thing. And the next… and the next…”