Monday Motivation: Accuracy and economy = beauty

 In Monday Motivation

There is a kind of beauty in clarity and accuracy that can’t be achieved by even the most skillful deployment of rhetoric.

I’ve been reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. He writes with great precision (and passion – in case you felt that precision implied a certain bloodlessness).

The paragraphs I want to introduce as evidence of my thesis, m’lud, concerns Joe Kavalier’s unorthodox entry into an apartment block whose landlady, Mrs  Waczukowski, has already shut the door firmly on him and his friends.

“In the street, Joe pulled himself up onto the newel that topped the right-hand baluster of the front steps, a chipped cement sphere onto which some long-vanished tenant had inked a cruel caricature of the querulous lunar face of the late Mr. Waczukowski…

“He perched for a moment atop the pop-eyed newel, his long feet side by side in their rubber-soled oxfords, and studied the retractable iron ladder of the fire escape. He pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and cupped a match. He let out a thoughtful cloud of smoke, then fit the cigarette between his teeth and rubbed his hands together. Then he sprang from the top of Mr. Waczukowski’s head, reaching out. The fire escape rang against the impact of his palms, and the ladder sagged and with a rusted groan slid slowly downward, six woozy inches, a foot, a foot and a half, before jamming, leaving Joe to dangle five feet off the pavement. Joe chinned himself, trying to loosen it, and swung his legs back and forth; but it stayed latched…

“Joe let go of the ladder with his right hand, snatched a puff from his cigarette, then replaced it. Then he took hold of the ladder again and swung himself, throwing his entire body into it, with each swing describing an increasingly wider arc. The ladder rattled and chimed against the fire escape. Suddenly, he folded himself in half, let go of the ladder completely, and allowed his momentum to jackknife him out, up and over, onto the bottom platform of the fire escape, where he landed on his feet…”

Now tell me that you can’t visualize every moment of this sequence. It only takes a few seconds – enough time, indeed, to take a puff of a cigarette – but every move is described with the utmost economy, and the utmost accuracy.

I can’t imagine how long it took Chabon to write and perfect these few paragraphs. I’m guessing, more than a minute or two; I’m guessing a lot more than that. Because this kind of precision is not achieved without a little pain.

Writing is difficult. Writing accurately and precisely and economically is very difficult. But what you have when you get there is something quite beautiful. I hope you agree with me when I say that these paragraphs by Chabon are quite beautiful.

What does it take?

Well, to begin with, I’d say it takes an assumption that you have to work very hard to get to the point at which you can finally say: I think I’ve got it. (And even then, you might need to hone it and condense it, and stand it on its head and… start again.)

Secondly, I think it takes a larger vocabulary than any of us currently possesses. After all, you can only be accurate, and economical, if you have the words you need. So, unless you know that that thing at the bottom of a flight of stairs that sort of terminates the bannisters, that sort of post thing, which sometimes has an elaborate carving at the top, is called a newel post, you wouldn’t be able to write Chabon’s first paragraph.

Reading any of Chabon’s novels will introduce you to a range of words you’d never encountered before. (The same can be said of Cormac McCarthy, of course – in spades.) It underscores the importance of having the widest possible vocabulary so that when you’re faced with a tricky bit in your narrative, you have all the tools you need to make the best possible job of it.

Happy writing,



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