Lovely though the flower of the deep-rooted sedge may be, the plant often becomes invasive. When that happens, it deserves to be dispatched, but its very attractiveness can lead to a certain dithering among those who encounter it on their property. At such times, a variation on the advice offered by Peg Bracken, household management maven of the 1960s, proves helpful. “When in doubt, throw it out,” she liked to say. In the case of the unwelcome sedge, “When in doubt, dig it out,” would work just as well.
Like all good aphorisms, Bracken’s has endured over time and seems infinitely adaptable, even beyond the realm of plant management. I’ve grown fond of my own variation for writing: “When in doubt, leave it out.” It’s not only good editing advice, it’s far less harsh than, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
That memorable directive — variously attributed to William Faulkner, G.K. Chesterton, Eudora Welty, and Stephen King — seems to have originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. In a 1914 lecture titled “On Style,” he said, ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it whole-heartedly, but delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Other bits of life advice have proven useful for my writing process. “Start where you can start, and do what you can do,” was offered up years ago by an irascible old fellow named Varnish John. He used it as an all-purpose rule for everything from boat work to hurricane recovery, but it works equally well in front of a computer.
And, after years of being familiar with Søren Kiekegaard’s famous book titled Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, I came to understand that “purity of prose is to write one thing,” and my writing improved as a result.
On the other hand, advice intended solely to aid writers struggling with their craft sometimes moves in the opposite direction, illuminating aspects of daily life.
When Avrahm Yarmolinsky translated and published “The Unknown Chekhov” in 1954, there were hints of what would become one of the most famous bits of literary advice ever offered. In a letter to his brother Alexander in May, 1886, Chekov wrote:
In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.
In his exploration of the famous quotation eventually attributed to Chekhov, the Quote Investigator hypothesizes that the suggestions contained in the letter eventually gave rise to the quotation most contemporary writers know:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.
One of the writers best able to capture that glint was Virginia Woolfe. In her novel The Waves, she suggests the value of the longer and perhaps more detached view, writing:
It is the panorama of life, seen not from the roof, but from the third storey window, that delights me.
And yet, in one of the book’s most delightful passages, we see not the panorama of life, but its details: an entirely compelling ground-level view where the glint of life’s light shines in a way Chekov surely would approve:
“Look at the spider’s web on the corner of the balcony,” said Bernard. “It has beads of water on it, drops of white light”
“The leaves are gathered round the window like pointed ears,” said Susan.
“A shadow falls on the path,” said Louis, “like an elbow bent.”
“Islands of light are swimming on the grass,” said Rhoda. “They have fallen through the trees.”
‘The birds eyes are bright in the tunnels between the leaves,” said Neville.
“The stalks are covered with harsh, short hairs,” said Jinny, “and drops of water have stuck to them.”
Whatever else we draw from The Waves, this much is clear. The world not only exists up there, it most assuredly thrives down here: in the palm that shelters both parrot and dove; in the sinking, sultry sun; in the extravagant cloud and the ethereal moon, pinned to Venus’ belt.
More, it lives in the now: hanging suspended between memory and imagination, past and future, dreams and obligations. Exploring Lancelot Lamar’s madness, Walker Percy writes:
To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle.
Threading the needle called life requires steadiness and vision, patience, and a willingness to endure occasional pain. That said, shadows still fall on the paths like an elbow bent. Islands of light swim on the grass, and the world continues to unroll itself for our pleasure, day after day.
With this world offering so much, and asking so little of us, surely we can find a place, and take some time, for seeing the here and the now.