Simplify, Simplify…

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…”

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79 thoughts on “Simplify, Simplify…

  1. I, too, am a collector of other writer’s quotes. Several have actually changed the direction of my life. Most, though, are just either good writing or hit the funny bone with the proper pressure.

    There’s also a quote I like about writing and what writers go through. I have no idea where it came from.

    “A writer, staring out the window, can still be working.”

    1. Richard,

      Wherever that quotation came from, it’s on target. It reminds me of the poet (whose name I can’t remember) who used to hang a sign on his doorknob at night saying “Poet at work”.

      There’s no question that there are processes that continue even when we’re not focused. Sometimes I’ll give up at night and just go to bed, unable to find the word or phrase I’m looking for. When morning comes, I very occasionally will have what I was looking for in mind before my feet hit the floor. It’s flat weird, is what it is.

      There was an article in the July 28, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine written by Jonah Lehrer and titled “The Eureka Hunt”. I’ve held on to it all this time because it perfectly explains why staring out the window, taking a shower, going to sleep and so on enhance creativity.

      We’ve known it all along. Now, science is catching up!


  2. After reading this I have the profound desire to go declutter the basement – or living room shelves or cupboards. Too much is too much.

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, how that works. I tend to over-write at work, and realize as I’m looking to prep things to send off to the designer that it’s not going to fit, not matter how they shift type or graphics. It’s too much. And so I start removing the excess – and it’s better. It’s just plain better.

    It’s like that with my art, too, although I tend to be better on that front. I see some wonderful things by other artists with layer after layer of stuff — words, paint, stamps, paper, ephemera and more. And most of them are wonderful. But when it comes to art, I have no facility for over-adding. When I do, it simply looks like too much. And when all is said and done and I’m looking at the finished end after removing a layer or two or three, I think, “Well, it’s not complex, but it’s a lot better!”

    Do you think it’s because we live with “too much?” We’re just used to plenty. Or maybe that’s just me…

    I just finished a book about the manor house in England that inspired Brideshead Revisited – timely, given my Downton withdrawal and the visit to the beautiful converted mansion I have written about in my most recent Gypsy post. Good book, but dense. And at one point, I thought, “I don’t need all this information.” “The part you must jettison is the best written part.” I really love that!

    1. jeanie,

      I thought about your Valentines when I was writing this. The simpler ones you did this year were so attractive. There’s clearly a role for ribbon and lace, for all the litte buttons and bows, but I suppose it has to be done carefully, with an eye to the overall effect.

      Sometimes those layers are wonderful. Sometimes they remind me of a bed and breakfast I stayed in when I went north last fall. When I walked into the room and looked at the bed, I had to stifle my laugher until the proprietress left the room. There had to be 35 pillows on that bed – big ones and little ones, bolsters, European squares. By the time I got them off at night, there barely was room to walk! That bed needed editing!

      It’s an issue for artists of every sort – photographers and painters, I’m sure, and perhaps even for musicians. What to include and what to exclude isn’t always obvious. It isn’t that “less” always is “more”. Sometimes less is just less, and the final product seems barren. I’ve always liked Auguste Rodin’s take on things: “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”

      Deciding what isn’t needed and chopping it off – there’s the trick!


      1. I like that — chopping off what I don’t need. If we’re lucky, we can still chop it off after it’s on there!

        thanks for the nice words about the cards — I agree; the simpler ones seem to speak more to me. I’m not sure if that’s style or simply that I don’t do cluttered well. I should — heaven knows I live in it enough!

        I was thinking about your post when I was re-reading my post on Diego Rivera’s murals at the DIA and looking at the photos again. In some cases, his work there is very simple in its story and yet, when you really dig into it, it’s far more complex than it appears to the casual observer, loaded with meaning and symbolism. I admire that he was able to include these ideas and statements into what is a very full (read cluttered) and yet totally uncluttered piece of art — every piece has meaning and was meant to be put right there to help tell the story — and I think that may be the key. Does it help convey your “story” or “point” or idea. Or, is it just there because you were having a darned good time doing it and didn’t want to quit? Choices — those can be hard!

        1. Diego Rivera’s murals are a perfect example. “Full” is not at all the same as cluttered, if what’s included all relates to the controlling theme of the painting (book, poem, etc.)

          A short, 300 word piece can be sloppy, confusing and nearly unreadable. A 300 page book can keep us engaged and delighted if tightly written, with a strong structure and good use of language.

          We may not always be aware of the structure in a good book, but we surely do notice a missing structure in one that’s not so well done.

          As Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “The waste basket is the writer’s best friend.”

  3. Hi Linda:

    Now that we’re touching the subject of “word herding” or words used by writers to express a construct; I would like to share with you a quote from Markus Zusak in his book, The Book Thief. He wrote: “The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying onto the floor like powder.”

    Here’s another quote from the same author and then promise to stay put: “A voice stooped out and ambled towards the sergeant. It sat at his feet.”

    Thank you for arousing my brain juices.



    1. Omar,

      Both quotations are wonderful. We think we control words, but words have a life of their own, and like to play tricks on us.

      That’s part of what makes learning another language so enjoyable, and so fraught with danger, don’t you think? When I was traveling in France, there were times I was certain I’d said one thing,but the expression on the faces surrounding me made clear I’d said something else entirely! Sometimes I figured it out, and sometimes I didn’t.

      That’s all right. That’s why we keep sharing words – to improve!


  4. This is so timely, as I’ve spent the afternoon editing work for some new writers at my former office job. Be concise, I tell them. Cut to the chase. Just the facts, ma’am. Those are the bywords in our medical writing.

    Not bad advice for all writing, either. But it’s very hard to do!

    1. Becca,

      And there you’ve raised another issue to be added to the mix – understanding the nature of what we’re writing. A haiku isn’t an essay isn’t a procedural manual. Sometimes precision is critical – one meaning for one word. Sometimes, we want to pile up layers of ambiguity and allusion.

      I have a friend who does technical writing for an aerospace contractor by day. At night, she works on her novel. She says there are times she feels as though she has writer’s whiplash. Other times she “forgets” and slips into the wrong mode, using the language of rocket science for her romance, and vice-versa.

      You’re right – all this paying attention is hard!


  5. I just wrote a short story. It was at 450 words or so and then I backed up deleting, deleting, deleting. Perhaps I choked that poor piece to death, but somehow I feel it is better, and less is more.

    I, too, love to gather/collect quotes, but only the ones I refer to time and time again make it to my “citations” page. How I love being the age I am, to know what to edit/include.

    Hmmm…this time I got here sooner, rather than later. What does that say?

    1. Georgette,

      Oh, my. Once upon a time I had to get a piece down to 500 words. Period. I started at 800. Reaching 700 was a piece of cake. 600 was do-able. After that, it was like no-anesthesia-surgery.

      When I got to 520, I felt as though if I pulled out one more word the whole thing was going to collapse like a pile of tinker toys. That’s when I learned the lesson – sometimes you have to back up and say things differently, reshape sentences. It was an amazing experience. Good for you, to stick with it until you were happy with the piece. I’m convinced every piece tells us when it’s finished. If we pay attention, all will be well.

      We do change in our relationship to others’ words, don’t we? When I was much younger, I favored quotations from people I wanted to emulate. Now, I enjoy recognizing myself, my values and experiences, in others’ words. In short, they give me another way to say “This is who I am”.

      Now I’m smiling – your sooner-rather-than-later arrival? Why, it must have been a slow afternoon in your neighborhood. ;-)


    1. Carol,

      I’ve received so much inspiration – and so much encouragement for my poor attempts at discipline! – that if I can provide a bit of the same, I’m happy as can be.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, and I appreciate your comment. You’re always welcome!


    1. Claudia,

      Now that’s funny, right there. As a matter of fact, I was going to tuck Auguste Rodin’s famous quotation up above, with jeanie, but I spotted your comment and saved it for you, instead.

      Asked how he achieved his magnificent sculptures, Rodin said, “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”

      Easy-peasy. ;)


  6. A friend of mine, whom I know but have never met (true of so many in this digital age, but I digress), once wrote the following, which I have in a place of honor on the wall: “Sometimes the answers have been there all along. It just takes us a while to discover them.”

    Wise woman, she, with her Kierkegaardian lenses. Unwriting, uncovering, and there, gleaming at the bottom of all those unwieldy words–the jewel of truth.

    1. ds,

      I can’t help but think of the discovery of the “Belle”, LaSalle’s beautiful and famous ship, pulled from the mud of Texas’ Matagorda Bay in the late 90s. A farmer hit something with a plow, and discovered it was a Spanish anchor. Later, someone else turned up some French cannons. When they found the Belle out in the bay under about two feet of mud, she still was packed with a million artifacts from the days of exploration.

      The ship, the artifacts, the remnants of the Fort – all had been there for centuries. People had farmed, lived and fished right on top of it all – but it took a few accidents for them to be discovered.

      There was plenty of work to be done after the fact – but the Belle, the jewel of the Texas coast, was found by accident. And isn’t that just how it is? We stumble across a phrase, a metaphor, an analogy, quite by accident, and only then does the work of uncovering begins.

      How fortunate we are that there are jewels aplenty to be found – and best of all, we don’t need million-dollar grants to do our work!


  7. I had a junior high math teacher named Mr. Lattimer who was the king of edifying quotes, many of which I still recall. One of his favorites that he used over and over with us was, “A word to the wise should be sufficient!”, and that quote came to mind as I read your essay.

    Now, I think I should heed said advice in regard to your essay, Linda! I think I’ll start collecting quotes, too. I’m sure I’ll learn to find inspiration as you have.

    1. BW,

      If you’re lucky, you’ll find a good laugh to go along with that inspiration. I just was digging around in my Mark Twain file for something, and discovered this:

      “Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig [Jane Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

      That’s not just funny, that’s laugh-out-loud funny. We’re so cautious these days, so worried that our words are going to offend or irritate that we often aren’t nearly as funny, or profound, or both, as we could be. Twain? He didn’t care.

      That’s another reason to spend time with some of the really good writers – especially with their correspondence, where they don’t have an editor lurking over their shoulder. They’re a tonic for what ails us, and a good defense against taking ourselves or our era too seriously.

      As one of my teachers always like to say, “Who do you think you are? Anyhow?” ;-)


  8. Ah, the holy grail of simplifying, so elusive. I’ve told myself time and again, do not read Henry James before sitting down to write. But then I do something just as daft, like reading Thomas Mann!

    Now, while it’s not precisely on point, I leave you this quotation, the last line in Roger Mitchell’s poem “Unfinished Feast.”

    A civilization sleeps in a quince.

    1. Susan,

      And I thank you for that. But – as too often happens, I fear – I am clueless. I’ve never heard of Roger Mitchell (though now I’ve found him in your blog), and I couldn’t find an online text of “Unfinished Feast”, and the only thing I know about quince is that it’s a fruit – or the tree that bears it.

      I can conceive of a very tiny civilization, curled up inside that fruit, but…. Perhaps there is more?

      What does occur to me is how beautifully you’ve helped to make clear the other side of the simplification coin. Prose – or poetry – that’s too spare, too shorn of muscle and drained of blood – will fail to communicate.

      I must say that Mitchell himself is an entertaining interview. I read the transcript of Barbara Yoder’s interview with him, and love this quotation from Mitchell himself: “It has helped my writing to be an English teacher, but the greater truth is that teaching English is a job and it largely gets in the way of writing. But I do have the summers free.”

      That made me laugh!


      1. Yes, he does seem very “down home.” Well, after all, he lives in the Adirondacks. I think perhaps he won’t mind if I give you the whole of this poem, which also includes a phrase he uses as the title of his latest book, of new and selected poems.

        Unfinished Feast

        The salver of seventeenth century painting
        stands in the dark, an interior Dutch dark.
        On it a few transparent grapes and a lemon
        peeled the moment before. Light leaks from the cells
        of the lemon onto the head of a fish.

        The moment before the moment is full
        of arrangement and thought, a rush to put
        the eye in the right relationship to things,
        what they call out to and across what space.
        Gold threads from under the skin of a plum.

        The sideboard heaves with elegant dissection
        while a candle we can’t see spills cream
        along the knife that makes it all possible.
        The napkin is crushed, the wine half drunk.
        A civilization sleeps in a quince.

        1. Bless you! I’m so grateful you brought over the poem in its entirety. It’s really quite wonderful, and makes me want to find more of his work. (Isn’t it funny, how we respond? As you know, there are poets that leave me “cold”!)

          My first thought was of Vermeer. And then, your original quotation shimmers in its new context. My favorite line? “…a candle we can’t see makes it all possible.” That could so easily be a metaphor for the writer – shining a light on reality, but remaining just out of sight, leaving the focus where it needs be.

          Oh – and that civilization sleeping in a quince? A reminder of Blake, and his equally marvelous line – “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower”.

  9. Referring back to Georgette’s comment and your reply regarding how much work is necessary in paring down our writing (as opposed to editing) here’s a great quote I stumbled across in the last day or so…

    “I am sorry to have wearied you with so long a letter but I did not have time to write you a short one”

    Attributed to Blaise Pascal

    1. Richard,

      That’s a great one – and isn’t it just true? I have a friend whose emails would make James Joyce proud – she sets a new standard for stream of consciousness.

      And good for you, to draw that distinction between paring down and editing. “Writing one thing” may take 500 words, or it may take 50,000. It’s the focus that’s critical, not length alone.

      I’ve never used a signature on my emails, but I may add the good Pascal’s words. They’re funny.


    2. Well, here we go again. This is indeed Pascal, not just an uncertain attribution. It’s from the Lettres provinciales, but the English translation given above is off. In the 16th letter, from 1656, Pascal wrote: “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Here’s a literal translation: “I’ve made this one [i.e. this letter] longer only because I didn’t have the leisure [time] to make it shorter.” Two sentences earlier, Pascal had written that his letters didn’t usually follow so frequently, nor were they usually of such length. I suppose you could infer that long letters wearied the recipients, but Pascal didn’t say that in this passage.

      1. Again, a bit of a lesson in conflicts that can arise between the spirit and the letter – it’s not only the law that serves as a battleground, apparently!

        Translation’s an interesting issue, all on its own. Georgette posted the lyrics to Celito Lindo in her blog this morning. I went to the Wiki, which had a side-by-side of a literal translation and what they called a metaphorical translation. As with the Pascal, both conveyed much the same meaning, but the freer translation is (for me) more appealing.

        It does increase my admiration for translators generally, and helps to make those arguments about translations of novels and such more understandable.

  10. My smile got bigger the further I went with this post. For one, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone in my frustrations, although you do a much better job of getting yours out of the way, I must say. And I understood well the problem (if it can even be called that) of too many ideas competing for space.

    And lastly, a quote I like might be one you’re already familiar with. In order to write good fiction you must write one good sentence, and then you must write another good sentence after it. – John McGahern,

    It doesn’t just apply to fiction, of course, and it’s what I always find here.

    1. Deborah,

      Shortly after my little experience with the good Kierkegaard, I began tucking my “extra” titles, paragraphs, stray thoughts and such into my draft file, each with their own little page. I think of it as a nice Home for Wayward Ideas. Every Sunday I visit, just to see how everyone is getting along. Now and then, one seems ready for release, and I bump it up to the top where I can keep an eye on it, to see if it’s ready to go into the world.

      I’ve not heard the McGahern quotation. It is a good one. And it helps to reinforce what I said to Richard, above, about the difference between focus and length.

      “Wirting one thing” may lead to a haiku. On the other hand, it may lead to something like John Barry’s “Rising Tide”, a book about the great Mississippi flood of 1927 that includes science, politics, race, honor, high society, and the Mississippi River. Despite its several hundred pages, it’s about one thing – that flood, its causes and effects.

      The same can be true in fiction, of course. My recent story about the corn whisperer is around a thousand words. Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” may be four volumes and who knows how many words, but it’s still about “one thing” – with a lovely conclusion that neatly ties together all four volumes.

      I’m not sure, but I suspect if the focus is clear, the length will take care of itself.


  11. Oh and ahhh, I loved this post. When Thoreau said, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” to his good friend Emerson, Emerson said, or so I’ve heard, “One simplify would have sufficed.” Which is exactly the point.

    1. Martha,

      On the other hand, if Thoreau had uttered a single “Simplify”, his words may not have echoed down the years as they have. “Simplify, simplify…” has a rhythm to it that the single word doesn’t – the difference between prosody and prose. That may help to explain why Thoreau is more widely read and quoted today than Emerson.

      I wanted to refresh my memory of Emerson, and did a quick browse. I found this, which in context is really quite funny.

      “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


  12. “Words are unpredictable, with remarkably strong ideas about how they should be arranged.”

    Forgive me for laughing when I got to this part in particular, being reminded of Winnie-the-Pooh saying: “My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.” I love it, Linda.

    1. Ginnie,

      Of course you’re laughing, because you understand language is a living thing, capable of blossoming into great beauty but equally capable of being eccentric, fussy or uncontrollable. When even letters begin wandering and rearranging themselves, sometimes we get Wobbly, and sometimes we get brand new words.

      Blessedly, simplification doesn’t require squeezing the very life out of language. Authors snipe at one another all the time about the best approach to writing, and it can be pretty entertaining when they do. I love hearing Hemingway say, ““Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

      Still, all of the good ones understand they’re word-herders as well as accountants. Ki yi yippee yippee yay!


  13. I like collecting quotes, but sometimes I cannot find them when I need them! I love Mark Twain, he’s got such a reliefing humor.

    To write is like entering another world, and when you come out you discover you’ll have to simplify! You discover that the world you were in and the words you’ve found might be boring to other people. They get too much of it.To simplify hurts.

    John Steinbeck said about this writing business: ” – this is the writing job, the loneliest work in the world, and I am now going into the darkness of my own soul.”

    Thank you, your post has made me think about something I haven’t finished yet!


    1. Grethe,

      Oh, that old problem of organization! I usually can find my quotations, because I return to the same ones again and again. But photos? Putting them into files is my project for the year. It’s going to take a full year, I think – just because I have trouble settling down to do it.

      I smile to hear you say writing is like another world. It amazes me how time can pass when I am working on a piece. Hours just fly by – at least, when things are going well. Unlike Steinbeck, I don’t experience writing as a lonely job – but of course, I’m no Steinbeck. I do think you have to be comfortable with solitude to make a go of it – solitude and silence.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – it’s always good to remind one another of unfinished projects, and encourage one another, too.

      I’m so pleased to see Jack’s Prairie Sagebrush Awards up. I’ll be by to see you soon!


  14. A good quotation is to honor, treasure, and acknowledge good thinking, intellect, and perhaps wit.

    Simplifying writing can be a wonderful thing. Hemingway and Steinbeck wrote simply, economically, and managed to put across great ideas and express complicated emotions and thoughts. Others write differently, equally effectively while being somewhat verbose and wordy. Different styles, some prefer one, and some prefer the other.

    I like simple, it is universal and pure.

    1. WildBill,

      I often think of writing in architectural terms. If the structure is well-designed and sound, it can support a wealth of features. And of course, it can be decorated any way the owner chooses!

      Some prefer Rococo, others a minimalist look. The trick is not to think a surfeit of pillows, laces and draperies can hide the inadequacies of a poorly-built, ramshackle structure. In the same way, lush language can work – if the writer has that underlying structure and keeps it in mind. Or so I think.

      Speaking of writing and wit, here’s one of my favorites from Twain:
      “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”


      1. The last time I taught in high school, there was an English teacher who wouldn’t let her students use the word very in their writing. I don’t know if she was aware of Twain’s way of putting it, but I’m certainly glad to learn it from you.

        1. He did have a way with words, didn’t he? I’ve only begun reading his correspondence, and it’s filled with gems like this – yet another argument in favor of real letters that can be preserved!

  15. It’s so easy to meander down every path. Simplicity requires discipline, and that is always more difficult.

    I’m off to peruse your collection. I never can get enough of quotes. The best ones express ideas we already know to be true, but someone else said it so much better.

    1. Bella Rum,

      You’re right about the “recognition factor” when it comes to quotations. The ones I enjoy most and tend to keep are the ones t I read and think, “Well, of course!”

      As for that discipline business – isn’t that just the truth. So often I’m tempted to think, “If some is good, more will be better.” That’s not necessarily true, whether it’s words or ice cream!


  16. Upon seeing your mention of Kierkegaard immediately caused me to look for a book containing some of his essays that I have kept with me for the last 52 years. It took me less than two minutes to put my hands on it; perhaps it is still important to me. I love his clarity of thought.

    1. montucky,

      Isn’t it interesting which books stay with us through time? I have some that have been replaced two or three times, and a couple that have “reserve” copies on the shelf. (Sailing turned me into a believer in redundancy, especially for engine parts. Since some books help to keep me going… well…)

      I laughed at your description of Kierkegaard’s clarity of thought. Perhaps I need to make another run at the Edifying Addresses. I may not be any smarter than when I first read them, but I know I’m more patient. That might help.


  17. I’m a quote collector too. I have them everywhere and sticky noted on my computer. A favorite of mine for months now is: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. -Goethe

    As a writer who rambles, simplify is hard for me. I do look for the adjectives to root out as well as hidden verbs when in verbosity, and try for strong verbs Recently I was informed to read out loud the writing after cooling and before publishing. Well, I do forget and it is funny to read my writing out loud. Yet, it does catch the snags and shows where it flows and not flow.

    Linda, I really enjoyed your excellent writing and it gave me much food for thought. I am hoping for more free time in a few weeks and I certainly would enjoy becoming a constant reader here.

    1. Anna,

      I have a friend who is trying to motivate herself to do certain things – house de-cluttering, for example. She has the modern version of Goethe’s words taped up all over her house – Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It!” It hasn’t worked yet, but she’s hopeful.

      Living by myself as I do, there’s no one around to ask, “Will you read this to me?” So, I found myself a little character who lives at the bottom of my desktop. He’ll read to me whenever I want. I wasn’t so fond of the default genie, so I have a green parrot, who grooves out to music, eats crackers and wears sunglasses when he isn’t busy reading my stuff to me. You can adjust the voice, and every half hour he reminds me of the time. Very cool.

      It’s not a perfect solution – he has trouble with some words – but the advantage is that, being a robot, he doesn’t try to correct for a bad flow. And he’s cute.

      You know you’re always welcome, even if you just have time to peek in and don’t comment. You’ve got a lot going on, I must say – and no one who knows your work would want you to skimp there.


  18. When I followed the link to the quotations on your About page, I paused at the second one, by John Muir. Some months back I saw the same words on another website, and when I went to track down the work from which the quotation came, I found that the version that circulates so widely on the Internet is incorrect. If you go to

    you’ll find a Sierra Club article that discusses the incorrect version(s) and gives the two versions that Muir actually wrote. The wrong versions express the same idea, but the wording isn’t Muir’s. The perils of the Internet age!

    1. Steve,

      What an great find. I’ve added the original to my list, along with the paraphrase. I’ll go back later and add a word about the Sierra Club page, as it’s an interesting study in how these things happen.

      And how ironic that the two Muir versions show “editor Muir” at work, tidying things up. That just makes me smile.


      1. When a quotation appears many times on the Internet with only an author’s name but never the work from which the quotation comes, I’ve learned to suspect the authenticity of the quotation. As hard as it is for me to understand, people do make things up and attribute them to someone famous. In this case at least the idea was more or less preserved from Muir’s original(s), but I’ve found two other “quotations” where there was no original by the supposed author: one was falsely attributed to Lincoln and the other to Poe. In any case, I’m glad to see editor Muir fitting right in with your theme and making you smile.

        1. That’s seems so strange to me. Trying to pass off the words of someone famous as my own is at least understandable, but making up something and attributing it to someone else? I suppose it’s a variant of the old “People say…” for those occasions when someone doesn’t trust their own words.

          1. One proposed explanation I’ve heard is that attributing a saying to a famous person is intended to give the saying credibility in the minds of people who read it. Maybe it’s akin to the fairly common (alas!) phenomenon in which someone with a political point to push will say, for example, that a certain study proves X, when in fact a reading of the study shows that the study didn’t prove X, or may actually have disproved X—or worse, that the supposed study doesn’t even exist. It’s not an aspect of the human world that I like, but it’s real and I’ve encountered it.

    1. phil,

      The thought of word-herding does raise some interesting possibilities – like, the Muse as a Blue Heeler or Australian Shepherd. And there would be songs, of course: “Git Along, Little Adjective…”

      Do you want to call the fellas over at the Livestock Show and Rodeo, or shall I? They’re always looking for new events.


  19. I love quotations. In fact, I’m a quotation junkie. :-) Most of the time, I find that quotations express better what’s on my mind than something I could have written myself.

    In writing as in any area of life, for me, simplicity is elegance.

    I like the way Leonardo da Vinci puts it: “Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.”


    1. Matt,

      Sometimes I think of quotations as new “lenses”, ways of looking through the world through someone else’s eyes. That’s one reason I enjoy your blog so much. Many of the extended pieces you share are like extended quotations that give me a new way to think about the world.

      Leonardo’s words gave me pause, since we so often contrast simplicity and sophistication. They have a nice twist to them!

      When I stop to think about elegance and simplicity, I think of your photo of the tea ceremony. Such things stay in the mind.


  20. The only problem I have with this essay is, that the premise that those ideas will stay to be drawn on later is a fallacy, as far as I am concerned. So many of my wonderful ideas disappear into oblivion if I don’t use them there and then or, at the very least, make a note of them.

    If I could only have retained them all in my limited cranial environment, I would, by now, be THE most lauded writer not only of the 20th, but also the 21st century.

    Anyway, that’s my excuse. Take it or leave it.

    Apart from that, the best advice I’ve had, and read, is : cut, cut and cut again!

    1. friko,

      Oh, isn’t it just the case? I never know where my car keys are and I’m constantly forgetting to put the milk back in the fridge. If I didn’t tuck all my left-over ideas into my so-called “draft file”, they’d be gone forever. One thing I have learned is to never tuck a phrase or “good idea” into the files without some kind of context. More than once I’ve come back, seen the note, and not had a clue what I was thinking. I trust a lot of people, but I trust my own mind less and less.

      That business of “cut, cut and cut again” is an even simpler way of saying “Simplify, simplify”. The best version I ever heard came from a teacher who was given to handing back papers while saying, “Put this thing on a diet”.

      And by the way – we have reasons. Other people have excuses. :-)


  21. Linda,
    This is why you are such an interesting writer and everyone loves to read your stories! I don’t think I will ever be cut out to be a writer; I am far too wordy of a person. Like many before me have already said, I love the phrase “word herder” !!!!
    Thank you again for another wonderful and thoughtful essay for our enjoyment!

    1. Patti,

      Well, everyone has their way of telling their tales, and you have some gifts that are so far beyond me it’s just funny – especially your art. If you asked me to draw a lemon, I’d get the yellow right, but that’s about it.

      I wish I’d kept up my writing when I was younger – much younger, as in high school. But I didn’t, so now I’ll just keep on herdin’ words for the years I’ve got left and see if I can keep you entertained!

      Thanks so much for stopping by – it’s always such a pleasure.


  22. But is it possible to write in the first place without coffee? The idea folks lived before us, and folks lived before them, and on and on and we still hear their words is quite awesome. Sort of you being a channel by quoting from those long gone.

    1. Preston,

      Oh, the coffee got made – yes, it did. I’m trying to make not quite so much, these days, but it does help to get the writerly juices flowing.

      It’s something to think about, this business of quoting people. I know when I was a child, quotations were more a part of daily life. People knew them, and spoke them aloud in real situations. The Bible was a great source, of course, but Shakespeare and the poets were, too. And of course there were the aphorisms, many from people like Ben Franklin.

      Steve has pointed out in a couple of comments how quotations can turn into mis-quotations, and I’m sure many of the things that were commonplaces weren’t word for word. But still, they were great ways to pass on wisdom to a new generation. Even today, I’ll be reminded of something the “old folks” said, and realize it’s just as true now as it was then.

      Of course, sometimes they’re twisted and turned a bit for amusement. An uncle used to say, “If your penny saved is a penny earned, why aren’t you getting better interest?!?”


  23. Wow… will this the 70th comment here make any difference? I think not. But, it’s for the purpose of self-expression that drives me to write a few thoughts down.

    Coincidentally, I’ve been preparing a post on quotes… coming up soon. Secondly, I’ve appreciated the simplify notion. It’s that ‘negative space’ concept, isn’t it? You know, one hint for us would-be screenwriters is: try to leave as much white space on the page as possible. ;)

    1. Arti,

      Ah, now… you know your comment makes a difference. For one thing, it’s your comment, and you know I treasure every one of them. For another, we’ve been carrying on this conversation since the day we discovered we both enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle, and it needs to keep going!

      I’ve seen a couple of my blog buddies get Freshly Pressed here on WP in that time, and I know one thing – you can spare me the 300 comment posts that don’t allow anything except short, cookie-cutter comments. I much prefer our conversations!

      I’ve always enjoyed your Valentine’s Day love quotations from the movies. I’ll be interested to see what you’re coming up with now.

      I need to go back and re-read your post on the Salk Institute, too. With this post as context, I might feel differently about it. The importance of negative space certainly is real – I wonder if sometimes there could be too much? I still remember and laugh about the first time I came across a film script. All that white space gave me vertigo!


  24. simple looks easy, but as you’ve pointed out, it’s not. i find that in every aspect of my life. kept reading your paragraph at the beginning and smiling that you’d quoted a man who didn’t think much of using quotations.

    1. sherri,

      Lovely bit of whimsy, isn’t it – that quoting of the good detective? It made me smile, too.

      It can sound trite, but the saying’s true: “easy reading’s damned hard writing”. Those words have been attributed to Hawthorne and Hemingway, among others, but I’ve learned my lesson and went looking. It seems they may be rooted in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s couplet from “Clio’s Protest”, written in 1771 and published in 1819:

      “You write with ease, to show your breeding,
      But easy writing’s curst hard reading”

      That’s not so bad, either.


    1. Jeannine,

      Saved by sloth? Aren’t we all? You’d better be bringing us occasional updates, though. I saw your news this morning – exciting, yes, but I think I’d find it overwhelming. I’m looking forward to news of the adventures.


  25. The best part of my coming late to this party is I feel as though I’ve sat through a marvelous, thought-provoking lecture between you and your readers.

    I sometime feel that I over-edit which takes away all the “snap-crackle-and pop” of my prose and leaves words limp like an old lettuce leaf.

    I really like your About page. The Joan Didion quote’s going up on my wall right now:
    “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant… It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

    1. Rosie,

      No lectures here! But plenty of discussion, for sure. I swear I have the best readers in the world – I love to see what you and the others have to say. I’m always learning new things, or being sent off in new directions.

      You’re right that over-editing can be a problem, too. That old blogging rule-of-thumb that says shorter always is better just isn’t true. At least, I don’t think so. A well-written 200 words is great. A terrific 1200 words is great. I’ll read them both, and write them both if I can.

      Someone asked me once, “How long should a piece be?” My rule is – as long as it needs to be. If I ever come up with something that turns out to need 50,000 words, that’s when I’ll think about a book.

      I enjoyed putting together that About page. It’s time to at least think about it again. Much would be the same, but some things would have changed – or at least need additions.


  26. I enjoyed this post, Linda, as I do whenever I visit your blog. The Twain quote was especially relevant. I couldn’t begin to count the number of books I’ve read that could have been — should have been — magazine articles or essays.

    1. bronxboy,

      Well, sure. On the other hand, I’ve bumped into a few pieces that I’ve wished would go on forever and ever and….

      I suppose the trick is making what we write just long enough. It’s the Three Bears School of Creative Writing. This piece is too long, this one’s too short, but this one? It’s “Just Right”!

      Good to see you!


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