by Rachel Pastan
Last week I met a law professor friend for dinner, and somehow we ended up talking about teaching writing. I’m the writing teacher—she teaches immigration law—but she was passionate on the subject of teaching students to write well. I was interested to learn that she sends work back to her students for revision more relentlessly than I do—three, four, five times. “I tell them they should write a brief so clearly that their mother could understand it, even if their mother isn’t a native English speaker,” she said. This is, in part, because the stakes are so high. She’s training her students to write—precisely, simply, persuasively—so they can help people in trouble, and maybe even shape U.S. policy in ways she believes are crucial and urgent.
I have always admired the commitment and lucid mind of this friend, who started her own nonprofit right out of law school and, when we were in college, won the undergraduate poetry prize. Now I admired—even envied—her self-assurance. I tend, I confess, to be comparatively wishy-washy with my own students. True, when they write muddy or jumbled sentences, I patiently detangle the prose with my pencil, compose exhortations to clarity, and sometimes refer them (perhaps datedly) to Strunk and White:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Occasionally, in the spirit of an exercise, I select a few of a student’s knottier sentences and ask him or her to try rewriting them in a couple of different ways. Many students are happy to work to clarify and tighten their prose. They see how powerfully concision and tautness allow them to convey emotions, ideas, and images.
Sometimes, though, a student tells me he likes his sentences as they are, thank you very much. He (or she) is not, he explains, out to be understood, necessarily—but rather to evoke, to stir, to experiment and disport. When I hear this, I remind him that it’s possible to be atmospheric in prose, to create all varieties of color and mood, while remaining absolutely comprehensible.
Still, I get where they’re coming from. When I was first falling in love with words, I had two favorite writers (though I would name different ones today). One wrote sentences I passionately adored—sentences like this:
“The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
The other one wrote sentences I adored just as much—sentences like this:
“Sometimes I could put myself to sleep saying that over and over until after the honeysuckle got all mixed up in it the whole thing came to symbolize night and unrest I seemed to be lying neither asleep nor awake looking down a long corridor of grey halflight where all stable things had become shadowy paradoxical all I had done shadows all I had felt suffered taking visible form antic and perverse mocking without relevance inherent themselves with the denial of the significance they should have affirmed thinking I was I was not who was not was not who.”
A strange, swirling package of words like the latter sentence (by William Faulkner) can swell the heart like nothing else—nothing, that is, except an achingly limpid sentence like the former (by Ernest Hemingway). Of course, Faulkner’s sentence is a complex and sticky web—not a muddle—but it’s hard not to make a muddle when trying to emulate it. I sympathize, though, with the desire to reach for its heady richness. So after I write my exhortations, and I wield my pencil, and I make my students do the exercises, I tend to leave them more or less alone.
Still, I am a devotee of clarity—of the sentence that rings out like a chime. Clarity comes in so many wonderful flavors. There is Austenian acerbity: “Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody.” Rothian derision: “Yakov Blotnik’s old mind hobbled slowly, as if on crutches, and though he couldn’t decide precisely what the boy was doing on the roof, he knew it wasn’t good—that is, it wasn’t-good-for-the-Jews.” Moorian caustic pain: “Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick.” Forsterian enigma: “Professor Godbole had never mentioned an echo; it never impressed him, perhaps.” Note that it’s possible to write about an enigma as clearly as you can write about anything.
Writers are not lawyers, and seldom is anyone injured by our sentences, however clotted or muddled they may be. Even so, the stakes are high: literature not only enriches lives — it, too, can change things. Without clarity, though, the reader must struggle as though through a thicket to see and understand. With it, we extend a hand to guide her into an imaginatively transformed world. This is as crucial and urgent a mission as any I know.