Good Material: Toward Rigor and Resolution in the New Year

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I envy artists their materials.

This is my conclusion as I survey a wall of vintage snapshots arranged by category of mistake. In a dozen, the photographer’s thumb edges fuzzy into the frame. In others, the photographer’s shadow falls ominously over smiling subjects. Unavoidable tree branches, photobombing, awkward optical illusions: errors, yes, but somehow a lovely part of the medium’s inherent negotiations with material reality, a problem and opportunity that writing, it seems to me, does not in the same way have.

In important ways writing is not like mixing colors, not like throwing a clay pot. Paints have chemical properties; pottery shatters in the kiln. To master such arts is to understand limitations, to discern what is and is not possible with a certain medium. The artists I know are perfectionists, heartlessly so, because that is required. They will paint right over a failed canvas; they will rip out every stitch and start anew. The artist comes to her material with an mix of control and surrender, and her success seems to rely on her ability to grasp a material’s specific demands, while reconciling those with her own vision.  There is something there, in the material, that works against you—which requires rigor, but might bring relief.

Writing, meanwhile, is too forgiving, too free, in so many ways limitless, and the terror of the blank page confirms this. We give ourselves prompts, forms, any structure to dampen this unfortunate freedom, as otherwise a piece of writing could start anywhere, end anywhere else, who knows? I suspect this is why making ‘found’ poems, using words cut out from another text, feels so deliciously easy. On the other hand immateriality has its advantages: words cannot be wasted, cannot dry out forgotten in a closet, do not have to be bought for $8.99 per box at the art supply store.

Theorists and philosophers have debated language and materiality. Maurice Blanchot says of ordinary objects that “matter itself is of no particular interest; and the more the matter that made it made it right for its use—the more the material is appropriate—the more it nears nothingness.” But in art:

The statue glorifies the marble. The painting is not made from material ingredients added to the canvas; it is the presence of this matter, which without it would remain hidden from us. And the poem likewise is not made with ideas, or with words; it is the point from which words begin to become their appearance, and the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes.

What does this mean? No one knows, but it sounds nice, and I read it for the qualities Blanchot describes elsewhere, speaking again of poetics: “Everything physical takes precedence: rhythm, weight, mass, shape, and then the paper on which one writes, the trail of ink, the book.” The poet Mark Strand also understands: “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. / There is no happiness like mine. / I have been eating poetry.”

Language likely falls somewhere between food and ephemera. Of course it does have certain limitations (not least that it conventionally strives to communicate meaning), and of course it is possible to approach it as a material, to find the resistance in it, by examining the established rules of craft. For this I turn to a classic, The Elements of Style. This little text, written in 1918 by William Strunk and expanded by E.B. White in 1959, emphasizes a formal and forthright use of language. Just as an etiquette book proposes standards of behavior that describe an ideal member of society, this oddly comforting text proposes principles of good writing that by extension seem to shape the writer herself.

According to the principles the book sets out, writing must above all be clear and purposeful. Use “definite, specific, concrete language,” it says. The guide urges the writer to choose one design, one purpose for each sentence, paragraph, and piece—then stick to it. “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end,” it says, adding that the writer should avoid qualifiers: “If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority.” In this book, a choice as small as a comma might separate the intentional from the wishy-washy. Even the excuse of purposeful obscurity offers no escape: “Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!”

It’s possible to read these as choices not just for writing, but for living. Many of the guidelines sound like advice for how to behave: Be active, not passive. Omit what you don’t need. Don’t draw attention to yourself; don’t over-explain; be a better listener. And in fact, the book draws an explicit connection between self and writing: “The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self.” The text even offers a moral observation, which it says “would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style.”

This idea, that writing is a distillation of self, is a familiar but odd assumption. Do costume designers talk this way about their art? Do muralists? Strange, too, that the act of shaping language might shape ourselves, but when Strunk suggests that “the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind,” it seems right. It’s as if the real materiality, the real constraint of writing, is somehow located within the writer: in her whirring mind, in her memories and thought patterns, and in the history and habits of her life itself. As if this is where her vision must reconcile itself with what is possible. But words, too, are material to this negotiation, as without the presence of language, those inner workings of the writer would remain hidden: “As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge.”

If I wrote more clearly, would it change my life? In my poetic ambiguities, I cringe. Emerging is a risk. Not just my writing but my existence, too, is a meandering exploration, although I have met those who live clear as argument, who are not afraid of emphasis, of choosing one design and sticking to it. They have made life their material, and shape a dream within its realities. I am envious of that, too. Wanting such rigor, through writing or otherwise, I make the same resolution I do every New Year’s: to simply be more resolute. To discard last year’s tangled syntax, to approach the blank page with purpose. And if I throw my shadow over the subject, to step back, clear the frame, and try again.

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Photo from “Unbelievable and Surprising Photos.”

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