Beginner’s Mind (Part 3

Georges Simenon was one of France’s most prolific writers. He is famous for penning the Maigret series, of which I have read zero. It is estimated that he wrote nearly 500 novels in his lifetime. He had an intense routine: when it was time to start his new book, he’d lock himself in his room for about a week, smoking cigarettes and typing away. Then, once it was done, he’d give it a once-over, then send it out.

This is discipline, sure, but it makes me think more of a beginner’s mind. This goes against every idea of what it takes to write a novel. You’re supposed to slave away for a year or more, eking out a sentence here or there, then you send it to an agent, then maybe, years later, it sees print. And no one buys it.

What a scam!

The beginner simply writes a book, and then is finished. Remember when you were a kid and you’d make your own little books to show your mom? If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer, you almost certainly did this.

How long did that take you?

Not very long, because you had an idea in your head that excited you, and you didn’t waste any time second-guessing yourself. First idea, best idea. You knew it was cool, and you had to show anyone who would pay attention.

There’s a story I carry around, maybe it’s apocryphal, but it goes like this: Simenon sent out his first manuscript to the agent who would end up representing him throughout his entire career. She sent him back the novel with a note to cut out every line of “poetry” from the text. Make it simple, direct. He did so, and went on to become one of the biggest writers of his day.

Our goal is much more humble: we want to be good at what we do, and we want plenty of people to read our stuff. I’d put forth the idea that the best way to do that is to streamline our prose and approach everything with a kind of beginner’s mind. That’s where the readability comes in.

Open a book that people actually like to read. What’s inside? A lot of clunky prose. But there’s a charm to it, a feeling that a real person wrote the book.

The point that I’m getting at, and what I’ll pick up on tomorrow, is that there’s something offputting about a book that is too clean, too streamlined, too “perfect.” My contention is that it will appeal to other artisans, the way an obtuse and artfully-constructed chair might appeal to avant-garde carpenters, but not to anyone who might want to sit in it.

More tomorrow.

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