I’ve spent nearly all of my free time for the past two weeks writing a short story that will soon be workshopped in my fiction class. When I was in secondary school, and maybe even through my freshman year of college, I associated “good writing” with extravagant rhetorical flourishes, fine turns of phrase, and basically stringing together the largest polysyllabic words I could fit side by side, sentence after sentence, page after page. I don’t know when exactly I realized that these occurrences are no more an indication of good writing than an essay’s word count or a clean spelling & grammar check. I am fond of that version of my writerly self and see her as an essential step in my personal development; plus, I learned some big and interesting words during those years, words like “antediluvian” and “peregrination.” Those were the years I truly discovered an appreciation and a passion for words themselves. In the thrill of this discovery, I inevitably used some of them more than I should have and certainly in places where they didn’t belong. But that period of toying with different words — using them incorrectly, inappropriately, testing them out, trying them on — that period enabled me to begin cultivating a stinginess with language, something I now believe is inherent to good writing. I’m finding it ever true for myself that writing is, in the end, about reducing: stripping sentences bare, down to the bone, before crafting the various muscles and organs with surgical precision, taking care to trim every ounce of fat (that is, excess) that might creep into the equation.
I just started reading Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (thanks for letting me borrow it, HH). In the first chapter, she writes, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.”
Here’s another excerpt, this one from my class handbook, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft: “Perhaps the most famous piece of advice to the rewriter is William Faulkner’s ‘kill all your darlings.’ When you are carried away with the purple of your prose, the music of your alliteration, the hilarity of your wit, the profundity of your insights, then chances are you are having a better time writing than the reader will have reading…Just tell the story. The style will follow of itself if you just tell the story.”*
I don’t tend to do much editing when I write blog posts. This forum is informal and not the place to “put every word on trial,” as Prose’s friend put it. Since blogging is a sort of storytelling, I at least try to write in engaging, vivid, and clear terms. That itself takes time and a not insignificant amount of editing as I go along. But my primary focus as TLG is not to write well, though I hope that occasionally happens. These words are not going to be published or evaluated. Of course I think (sometimes a lot) about what I write, and I do aim to project a certain writing style. But once a post is done, it’s done. I rarely return to one unless I notice grammatical or blatant errors. Blogging is a form of stress-relief, and I don’t want the burden or challenge of perfecting my writing here.
But I suppose I am saying that clarity and reduction are at the forefront of my mind, and not only at the level of language. I’m sure we all go through these phases of recognition when we realize our lives aren’t working. I’ve stumbled into that dull, nagging sensation that something is wrong or off or missing. When I get this feeling, I usually discover that the solution involves some degree of simplification. I’m a minimalist by nature, so simplifying can be complicated. But even so, it’s clear to me that sometimes I need to be less, want less, have less (often in combination with needing, being, wanting something different) in order to experience greater fulfillment.
This tomato sauce is for those times when you are compelled to rise up against the superfluous in your life.
The recipe is from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by way of Smitten Kitchen. It starts with a 28 oz. can of whole peeled tomatoes. San Marzanos are ideal and I do recommend securing them if you can– they are noticeably less acidic, and sweet enough so that you need not and should not add sugar. To these, 5 tablespoons of butter and one halved onion are added. That’s right, butter, and one onion, cut in half. Put the ingredients into a pot or saucepan and let it simmer for 45 mins, stirring occasionally. Remove the onion halves, crush the tomatoes against the side of the pot, and add salt to taste. I used maybe a scant teaspoon. Four ingredients, including salt. Five with pasta. You may add garlic or basil if you please, but for me this recipe is a lesson in simplicity.
The dish looked like I expected it to. Any cook knows that is a rare occurrence worthy of being cherished. It’s also one of the only times I’ve followed a recipe exactly. Might there be a correlation? Perhaps, but I think it has more to do with the sublime simplicity of it. Substituting butter for the traditional olive oil gives this sauce the mellow, savory richness to let it thrive. The onion’s juices permeate the sauce, and I didn’t miss the onion bits all that much. I did indulge in a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, which pleased my ‘buds. But I think my soul needed this dish more than my body did.
*Seventh edition, by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.