Self-concious Prose

I started reading a book this weekend that came highly recommended by a friend.  Another friend warned against it, calling the book “weak” and “poorly written” at its best.  After investing about 40 pages, I have to agree with the second friend.  This book, as with several others I’ve read recently, is guilty of what I refer to as “self-concious prose.”  What I mean by this is that the writer is so in love with his or her style that he or she becomes a presence in the text.

When I read, I want to transcend the paper I hold in my hands and be carried somewhere else.  The book doesn’t have to be fiction to do this; Erik Larsen, the author of “The Devil in the White City” (http://www.randomhouse.com/crown/devilinthewhitecity/author.html) and others, does this with historical nonfiction as well.  All it requires is that the writer focuses on the creation of a story that encompasses the reader.  Unfortunately, several of the books I’ve looked at recently (and put down because I will not waste my time) don’t understand this basic aspect of writing.  It’s as if the writers become so transfixed by their own words that they begin spewing out sentences for how they sound, not for their purpose in the story itself.It’s great to have a writer who can turn a catchy phrase, so long as that phrase benefits the story.  When it’s a catchy phrase for the purpose of making the writer sound clever, it becomes self-concious, and the writer becomes an element in the story.  Many new writers are guilty of this, and think themselves clever in their funny or interesting turns-of-phrase, when all they’ve really succeded in doing is interrupting the reader and pointing to themselves.  “Look, aren’t I clever?  Aren’t I funny?”  To which the reader typically replies, “No, you’re annoyoing.  Go away.”

When I teach my Literature students, I talk to them about “artisitic unity,” or the concept that everything present in a story has a purpose.  Nothing is wasted; nothing is there just for show.  I try to apply this to my own writing, paring down the words I use to those that convey the most meaning.  If, on revision, I find that I’ve put something in that is just me being present in the story, I take it out.  One of my writing mentors calls this “sacrificing our babies.”  He warned that falling in love with our own words is a dangerous, even deadly pasttime.  It causes us to be blind to the needs of the story, focusing instead on our own voices being heard.  It’s ego, plain and simple. 

Ego is fine when you have the name and reputation to go along with it; Alice Walker, Dean Kuntz, James Patterson, etc.  However, when you are not an established name, or at least not yet, you can’t afford to put yourself in the story because know one knows who you are and no one cares.  The way you become an established name is that you take yourself out of the story, check your ego at the office door, and just write what needs to be there for the sake of a great story. 

Though Hemingway had a big ego, it rarely got in the way of a great story.  Read “The Short and Happy Life of Francis MaComber”(http://www.duke.edu/~ss57/macomber.pdf) to see an example.  Yes, there is ego in the story, but it is the ego of the characters, not Hemingway.  Read Samuel Clemens’s “Two Ways of Viewing a River” for another example of beautiful, well-crafted prose.  (http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/twainold/twain.html scroll down to page 289 on the text ).  Clemens puts together sentence after of sentence of sensory detail that gives the reader a sense of presence, but never once does the reader feel that Clemens is trying to impress him or her with his advanced knowledge of the English language.  Never once does the reader feel that he is being clever or inserting himself into the scene unnecessarily.

This self-concious prose is the writer getting in the way of him- or herself.  It’s annoying.  By keeping in mind ALWAYS what the reader needs, we can help to limit the chances of this happening.  Focusing on the concept of artistic unity is another way to limit the likelihood of this obtuse intrusion of the writer.  The final step is allowing other writers to review the work, and then being open to their suggestions for change.  These steps will keep the manuscript tight, limiting the chances of the writer’s ego invading into the reader’s experience.

Happy writing!

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