It’s rare I read an essay that puts me on pause. But it happens. Amidst the rubble of Elon Musk fanboy pieces and lessons learned from the centurion set, there are storytellers who go deep. They draw cross-cultural references and care less about clickbait titles and tidy 5-minute reads to deliver something meaningful and real.
An essay where you felt you learned beyond its borders. An essay that had you clicking all the names and going down rabbit holes of delicious, wanton knowledge. I don’t skim, I immerse. Writer, I will follow you into the dark.
Enter David Perell’s “Expression is Compression,” (via Benek Lisefski, whom everyone should be reading because he writes and shares the best stuff) which made me think about the power, impact, and weight of the words I use and how I use them.
“Experiences become shareable creations the way tree sap becomes maple syrup.” So starts the essay that draws from Picasso, Rene Magritte, Plato, Alfred Korzybsky, and New York City subway maps to demonstrate how the power of distilling ideas into a compressed state is the embodiment of creative excellence.
You make it look so easy, everyone thinks they can do it too — that’s the objective. You’re the George Saunders of storytelling.
This is not as simple as using fewer words in an essay. It’s about the words you choose and their arrangement. The arrangement makes the music, composes the symphony. It’s about better words — an excavation of the English language to find the precise word or term that holds court above the rest — examples that cut to the core, stories and images that house multiple Choose Your Own Adventure narratives.
Up until a few years ago, I’d never been a fan of abstract or cubist art. I preferred the drama of the Caravaggios of the High Renaissance or Goya’s Black Paintings. I wanted my canvases rich, dark, and opulent in its depictions of torment and despair.
I started to diagram the work of Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy, Amy Hempel, and Zadie Smith, which is a fancy way of saying I’d vivisect paragraphs and pages to see how the proverbial sausage was made. I go into detail about how I write in this oldie-but-a-goodie essay.
I wanted my fiction to say more, but do less.
Years ago, Nathan Englander handed back a story I’d written and it looked like a crime scene. During office hours he said, every word you choose has to do the work of two, three, four words.
Every sentence has to have a purpose in the narrative. Dialogue has to operate on multiple levels to achieve the depth that only memorable scenes do. Think of Denis Johnson’s short story “Emergency” in Jesus’ Son, for example:
Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in, led by Georgie.
“I hope you didn’t do that to him,” Nurse said.
“Me?” Georgie said.
“No. He was like this.”
“My wife did it,” the man said. The blade was buried to the hilt in the outside corner of his left eye. It was a hunting knife kind of thing.
“Who brought you in?” Nurse said.
“Nobody. I just walked down. It’s only three blocks,” the man said.
Nurse peered at him. “We’d better get you lying down.”
“Okay, I’m certainly ready for something like that,” the man said.
She peered a bit longer into his face.“Is your other eye,” she said, “a glass eye?”
“It’s plastic, or something artificial like that,” he said.
“And you can see out of this eye?” she asked, meaning the wounded one.
“I can see. But I can’t make a fist out of my left hand because this knife is doing something to my brain.”
They got him lying down, and Georgie says to the patient, “Name?”
“Your face is dark. I can’t see what you’re saying.”
“Georgie,” I said.
“What are you saying, man? I can’t see.”
Nurse came over, and Georgie said to her, “His face is dark.”
She leaned over the patient. “How long ago did this happen, Terry?” she shouted down into his face.
“Just a while ago. My wife did it. I was asleep,” the patient said.
“Do you want the police?”
He thought about it and finally said, “Not unless I die.”
In the scene, people are responding directly to questions, but they’re revealing something larger about themselves (how they view the situation, their place within and beyond it) than the scene in which they exist. You get perspective and insight into the characters through what they say and how they’re saying it. Think of it like aperture — your words adjusting how much light you let in.
All the writers I studied have varying styles, but they achieved in their novels what Picasso did in his sketches — they rendered simplicity from complexity. Every paragraph required a defibrillator. Picasso needed to draw the maximalist versions of the bull to arrive at the final image. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have achieve the purity and exactitude of it.
It took me years to achieve this state in my fiction. I’d do this by being surgical in the editing process. How can I revise this sentence to bear the weight of more meaning? How much luggage can this word hold? Can I juxtapose unexpected images to achieve the effect I want on the reader? For example, see the below raw first draft of what would become the best short fiction I’ve written in years.
You’ll notice the final draft is a leaner, more powerful version of the ramble I typed out on my phone. Notice the opening sentence:
Years later, we would still talk about the girl who jumped out of the window.
There’s a lot to unpack in this opening:
- Who is we? It suggests an insulated community and how they behaved.
- Who is the girl and why isn’t she named? The fact I called her a “girl” in the opening is deliberate, and you don’t know why until the rest of the story.
It took me a few hours to get that first line right because I wanted the opening to have just enough ambiguity to make the story move and enough clarity for you to know something about the world we’re about to walk into without exactly saying it. It gives the reader enough to run with, but not too much.
Every word has to earn its keep.
Every single word in that story is deliberate. “Picked clean, they dried damp in the dark,” which likened the girls to animal carcasses ravaged by vultures (the men) and animal hides (the violation and excavation of their insides). Also, it suggests sex without saying the actual words. I wanted this sentence to suggest violence and dehumanization. How genteel men can act like animals.
Throughout the editing process, I’m wondering if there’s a starker image I could use to convey meaning in a way that usurps convention and shakes the reader out of their stupor? Can I play with the rhythm of a paragraph using runs and staccatos — short sentences vs. winding ones? Where do I end the sentence, the page? Where is the rest — when do I allow the story to breathe?
I’m not here for lazy readers who want to be spoon-fed. I want the reader to work, yet there exists varying kinds of work. I want the reader to think, be challenged, be disturbed and disquieted. What I don’t want is them to sift through mess to ferret out meaning.
That’s why when people ask me why I don’t write fiction more often I say it’s because it’s hard. Fiction is exhausting. Every word is a diamond mined sustainably. I can write an essay or tutorial in an hour whereas one page of a short story can take days.
And that put me thinking I need to employ this compression in my non-fiction. How do I continue to make the complex simple?
To quote Einstein, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
I’m working on an ebook slash course slash whatever it is. Candidly, I thought the project would be easy since 50% of it has already been written. However, after I read Perell’s essay, I found myself going back to the proverbial drawing board. Asking myself — how can I make this easier for the reader to understand? Can I use fewer, better examples? Can I just insert only that which is necessary for them to know to get the job done?
Again, it’s not about fewer words or less time. It’s about better words and time more effectively spent. I want my reader to go deep instead of slogging through. I want them to spend more time applying the lessons to their work and business instead of reading my work. Because my non-fiction isn’t about me — it’s about you.
Now, it looks as if 90% of my new project will be comprised of new material, including the embedded videos and audio recordings.
Now, I can’t even look at the hundreds of essays I’ve written because all I want to do is rewrite every single one of them! I won’t because it’s an exercise in futility, but I will apply the Picasso sketches to my work going forward to tell compelling, exacting stories trimmed of extraneous fat.
Here’s what I have learned — if you can’t look at your work from a few years ago and cringe (even in the slightest), you’re not making progress.
Sign up for my weekly dispatches where I talk all things brand and storytelling.