Saturday, November 21, 2009

Beauty, Complexity, Simplicity: A Meditation on Writing

I love words. I love stringing them together in long, elegant phrases. I love letting them tumble over each other like waves rumbling up a beach at high tide. And I have, perhaps, devoted too many hours to Tolkien.

When your literary heroes are half a century gone, you have a tendency to write like you are half a century gone.

Two friends of mine have long loathed my writing for its needless complexity. Their dislike used to annoy me. Now I simply smile at them and look forward to heaven, where I will be free to enjoy long, florid sentences.

I've written nearly 500 blog posts in the last four years. My writing has changed nearly as much in that time as I have. In the last three months, it's changed even more.

It's said that John Calvin helped shape modern French by using short, colloquial sentences. Making oneself understood is a noble goal, so thus do I write henceforth: as colloquially, conventionally, briefly, coherently, and especially unseparated-by-an-endless-chain-of-commas-or-hyphens-ly as possible.

I have spent nearly as much time writing these past months as my wife, the professional writing major. Writing for two blogs will have that effect, of course. (No doubt Jaimie will be writing far more than me in the coming semesters, when she writes short stories and then a novel.) Along the way I have thought about Eliot's admonition to use fewer words, chosen more carefully. In general, I agree.

On the other hand, I miss poetry in prose. I miss the long rising and falling of breath in a sentence. I miss landscapes and textures of clothing. I miss an age when we delighted in paintings.

I sometimes fear that in seeking to communicate as concisely as possible, we can miss opportunities for splendor. There may be as much beauty in a simple wooden church building as in a Gothic cathedral—but not more. Profundity can often be embodied in very few words. Sometimes it cannot.

Many of the greatest discoveries in physics were mathematically straightforward, however revolutionary. From Galileo through Einstein, each discovery pointed to modernity: determinism embodied in simple, elegant equations. Then quantum mechanics came and flipped the world on its head, especially when Feynman got ahold of it. It points to complexity and choice: postmodernism embodied in probabilities. It has taken a generation to recognize the orderliness and coherence of the quantum world. It will take another—at least—before we reconcile these two visions.

I mourn the loss of high language in writing, even as I appreciate the gain in precision we have made. Perhaps, with enough practice, we can learn to mingle the two.

1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    There was an article in The Daily about this very thing yesterday. A florid writer, arguing the merits of floridity.

    I like. Very much.


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