One of my favorite bloggers, Hecate, wrote a blog post called “Elegant,” about the concept of elegance.
Here are a couple of quotations.
She quotes from Matthew E. May, the author of Elegance and the Art of Less: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing:
“Something is elegant if it is two things at once: unusually simple and surprisingly powerful. One without the other leaves you short of elegant. And sometimes the ‘unusual simplicity’ isn’t about what’s there, it’s about what isn’t. At first glance, elegant things seem to be missing something.”
And then she herself says:
“Elegance, I want to say, matters. And, although life is messy, an elegant life is unusually simple and surprisingly powerful. Like good legal writing, like good magic, an elegant life takes two things. The first is a blindingly clear objective. And the second is ruthless editing. Like good real estate, which is location, location, location or like getting to Carnegie Hall, which takes practice, practice, practice – elegance takes editing, editing, editing. Take things out. Remove the extraneous (which requires you to know the essential). Get down (as we do in Winter in the garden) to the bones.”
These quotations struck me in particular because I think they have to do, not only with how I try to live my life, but also with how I try to write. In a recent interview for Clarkesworld Magazine, I said that I do not try to write beautiful prose, and that’s true. I don’t try for beauty. But I think I do try for elegance. And Hecate is exactly right, it takes ruthless editing.
Even writing this blog, I find that I’m continually editing my sentences, trying to make them simpler and more powerful.
How to be elegant?
I look around this room, and it seems elegant to me. The furniture, all of oak and ash, the cream-colored carpet and walls, the green bedspread and cushions. I have edited the colors so that nothing jars, nothing clashes. The paintings on the walls are like windows, looking out at lakes or flowers or fantastical scenes. There is, alas, currently an excess of paper on the desks. I could clean up, but instead I think I’ll make the room more elegant – same thing, but doesn’t the latter sound finer? And of course books, the books I love most, and so already carefully edited, perfectly elegant.
And sitting here writing, I feel elegant. Black turtleneck, slim jeans, a thick black leather belt. Marcasite earrings in the shapes of dangling flowers. Perfume, of course, light and gingery.
Are my words elegant? I try to make them simple and powerful, and perhaps that achieves elegance. At least I hope it does.
If this blog post were truly elegant, it would have ended with the sentences above. Don’t they end the post almost abruptly, leaving you wondering if perhaps there is more? If I meant to write another sentence? That, at least, is what I was aiming for. But today I want to end with one other quotation.
So many of you have read the post I wrote yesterday, “Write Every Day.” I hope it helped you, as much as writing it helped me. I think all of us need that sort of encouragement, that sort of reminder sometimes. I particularly liked something that Nathan Ballingrud wrote about my post, in a post of his own called “The Beautiful Grind.” So I’m quoting part of it here:
“Theodora Goss wrote on the subject of writing every day on her own blog yesterday, comparing it to keeping the body in dancing shape. It’s a terrific analogy, because it illuminates the fact that what we’re training ourselves to do is more than just stay in shape, whether as writers or dancers or what have you. I’m a good enough writer that I can not write for several months and still sit down and compose a solid and well-written draft. What we’re training to do, though, is to be better than in shape. We want to be remarkable. We want to be like nothing else anyone has yet seen.
“I’m getting an object lesson in the consequences of neglecting that exercise. Language moves around in unexpected, disorienting ways. There are days on which it seems that I’ve forgotten how to make sentences work. Words are strange and unwieldy. English is a sluggish, petulant beast.”
We do want to be remarkable, don’t we? We do want to be like nothing anyone else has yet seen. And I think part of that is elegance, because elegance is individual. Editing implies choice, and choice is always individual, because it’s based on our objectives. Hecate says that the first component of elegance is a blindingly clear objective, and that’s the first thing we must define: the objectives of our lives, of a room, of a story.
That’s what I need to do in my own life, define my objective so that it is blindingly clear, so that I know the essential and can remove the extraneous. My objective has to do with writing, and once I began to understand that, I could begin to define what was essential, like writing here every day. Because Nathan is right, language has a mind of its own, and writing is a sort of compromise between the writer and language. The more I write, the more I learn how to move in language, as a dancer moves elegantly across a floor. The more language and I move together. So that it’s not a sluggish, petulant beast, but my partner.