Wabi-Sabi Writing 02/18/21

Beauty in writing is like beauty in everything else: it’s great when it’s properly deployed. Sentence-level perfection is hammered into the heads of MFA students worldwide, and then they graduate and become confused as to why their books aren’t selling.

“Wabi-sabi” is a Japanese term for architecture that, if I remember correctly, relates to the beauty of imperfection. It’s leaving a bit of sheet rock exposed. A cheap and ugly version you might recognize are hair salons that have their ventilation exposed overhead.

Real wabi-sabi, however, is fundamentally important when it comes to crafting things that people want to read. You have to take your foot off the gas and just freestyle a bit.

Recently I’ve been editing works that are very well written, from a certain point of view. What I’m trying to get across to clients is that there’s something that feels a bit alien and dead about a book that has been “sentenced” to death. Maybe that’ll be the title of a book I write someday!

Say you’re zipping along, writing your novel. You have trimmed so much fat. Everything flows together until it’s this perfect stream of words. It sounds great to you. But you’ve created no real world for the people reading to inhabit.

It gets really, really boring.

I am totally guilty of this in my own way. I’m trying to understand when it’s important to be precise and beautiful, and when it’s time to ease off and relate a story, as though I was telling it to a friend. There’s a third bit too, kind of a “jazz riff” technique that I could talk about later (it’s self-explanatory, though).

I used to go about 70/30 “beautiful prose/telling story” but now I’m closer to 90/10 “telling story/beautiful prose.”

Killer lines in a book should be relatively rare. That’s what makes them so killer. It reminds me of rap music: the stuff that I like is largely very stupid, but what some artists can do so well is have that one perfectly placed, cleverly stupid line that makes the whole song more fun. On the other hand, you can have verbose, wordy rappers who are boring. It’s word salad. Many are like this. Only Aesop Rock comes to mind as someone who’s wordy and still interesting/funny.

I haven’t quite hit exactly what I mean by this post, but that’s the beauty of blogging. I’ll keep “thinking out loud” and one of these days I’ll really hit on what I mean.

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