By Noemi VanSlyke
Whenever you’re in need of some inspiration to help you push forward in your work, turning to the wisdom of some literary greats might provide you with the necessary guidance and insight to jumpstart your creativity!
In her essay “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith writes: “There is a dream that haunts writers: the dream of the perfect novel. It is a dream that causes only chaos and misery. The dream of this perfect novel is really the dream of a perfect revelation of the self.” Earlier in the essay, Smith describes a hypothetical young writer who has all the skills and knowledge necessary to write the ideal or “perfect” novel. In theory, this novel would contain an intrinsic essence of truthfulness. However, this impetuous young writer fails to communicate that essence of truth onto the page, and instead that truthfulness gets lost in the translation of his ideas into familiar and colloquial sentences and paragraphs.
So what can we take away from Smith’s imaginary young writer and his incapacity for truth-telling? Well a few things: for one, we must rid ourselves of the notion that we can write a perfect novel. For Smith, the best writing is an attempt at revealing the truest form of self, however, total self-revelation is impossible, and therefore writers who advertise doing just that are simply beguiling themselves and their audience. What we must do in order to creep as close as possible to perfection is to simulate the truth of our existence as accurately as we can through language, without falling back on clishéd phrases and overused idioms inherited from our era, and the ghosts of eras past.
George Orwell, in his essay “Why I Write,” echoes Smith’s criticism of using age-old, generic, and overly-ornate language in novels. He claims that his own work’s greatest flaws stemmed from succumbing to the use of such language, a habit due to which he “wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”
Similarly, in Stephen King’s “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully in Ten Minutes,” King creates a list of rules for writers to live by. #4 on the list is to “remove every extraneous word.” Like Smith and Orwell, King believes that in order to be successful, writers should not intentionally obscure their work in fanciful language with no other purpose than to be abstract. He makes it clear that if ambitious writers want to get paid, they have to “get to the point,” and fast, which parallels Smith’s goal of always telling the truest and most accurate version of events in your writing. By “getting to the point,” you are attempting to get to the very core of what you are describing without taking any unnecessary detours.
Hopefully, by keeping in mind these writing insights from some literary greats, you’ll be able to revitalize your work and harness your own personal writing muse in no time!
Noemi VanSlyke is a third year student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is studying English Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing and she is one of three work studies at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program.