Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In praise of inefficiency.

Tonight I lay in bed reading The Monkey Wrench Gang, wanting just to escape into a story, to forget for a moment about the craft of writing and editing and pitching stories that consumes my days. But once you've entered that world it's impossible to close the door and leave it behind.

I remember hating my high school English teacher for forcing me to think about structure and dialogue and other writers' tools that until then I'd taken for granted. But once I began to notice those things, they were impossible to ignore. No longer could I open the covers of a book and simply lose myself. Rather than diminish the pleasures of reading, though, my reluctant literary education made me appreciate a well-written story even more, in the same way that a well-educated oenophile better appreciates a quality bottle of wine.

So here I am, three beers into forgetting a day rife with sentences and structure, thinking I could snuggle into some pajamas, slide under the covers and enjoy some Edward Abbey. I got two pages in when when I read a passage: "Hayduke reflected. That was true. There was truth in that statement," and the subconscious editor in me flared up. Or rather, the writer who lives in fear of the subconscious editor. Most editors I've worked with wouldn't think twice about cutting the second sentence. Superfluous! Repetitive! The sirens go off. The words slashed. Good writing is all about efficiency. Clarity and brevity are the name of the game.

The books I read say that writers who break the rules are allowed do so only after they've mastered them. Maybe by the time Edward Abbey wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang he'd already reached that point. Maybe Dave Eggers and Hunter S. Thompson had to spend years proving their adroit efficiency before they were able to get a single rambling train-of-consciousness sentence published. But you know what I say? I say fuck that.

Everywhere I turn, I'm encouraged to be efficient. My car is very fuel efficient. There are only 24 hours in the day, so I must be efficient with my time. Most annoyingly, I'm encouraged to be efficient when I head into the backcountry. Nature has no room for superfluity – even the most extravagant flower is born of function – so perhaps it makes sense that we are stripped to the bare necessities when we venture outside. But really? Ultralight backpackers who cut the tags off their clothing to save weight and measure their freezedried food by the ounce seem only to further distance themselves from the natural world, more in tune with the machinery of urban life than the meandering nature of the trail. When I used to work on trail crew, the attitude was that the more weight you carried, the tougher you were. Leave sparseness to the monks. I find beauty in the excess weight, the unnecessary sentences, the pleasure in lugging a bottle of beer or a book of poetry 12 miles into the backcountry. I don't want my life — or my writing — stripped to the bare minimum. I want to spill over the edges, explode with extravagance, resist the pressure to reduce word count and fit only into the space allotted. Ramble on. 

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