Monday, November 16, 2015

The Long and Short of It: Buried Meanings and Revealed Truths

William of Occam, a fourteenth century English Franciscan author of philosophical tracts, is best known for his admonition of simplicity, "Universes must not be unnecessarily expanded."  His approach, often referred to as Occam's Razor, has been extended to mean the simplest solution is the best solution.

While not an engraved-in-stone, irrefutable thesis, nevertheless, simplicity does have an innate beauty.  This beauty challenges more elaborate, orotund detail to stand up and defend itself, perhaps even asking, "What are you trying to hide in all that detail? 

In the same investigative process, inherent truths may appear to emerge from simplicity that are not always so easy to find in vast networks of complex braiding.

You most often think of Occam's razor and of simplicity when looking at your desk and the floor surrounding it, even though much of the clutter did serve some welcomed purpose, a line from a poem, a memorable phrase from a story or essay, perhaps even the forgotten name of an antagonist in some eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novel.  

Your thoughts of the venerable monk often emerge when you are in the process of revising your own work or editing the work of another, causing you to depart from your natural tendency to add phrases and clauses to an already occupied sentence, which, in turn, cause you to recall the legions of freight trains you see, crossing the desert in parallel to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where you venture at about this time of year to spend Thanksgiving with family.

To your way of thinking, there is an inherent challenge in extending a short, declarative sentence into something as extensive as those great, long, graffiti-splashed trains plying the desert with tons of cargo.  You want to see how many words you can attach, yet still deliver the emotion-laden punch of dramatic cargo.  

When you worked for the Associated Press, you were informed on some kind of regular basis of the results of expensive and expansive tests where a sentence with more than seventeen words was found to be, for want of a better word, clunky, leading to confuse rather than inform the reader.

When you first began to concern yourself with the kinds of short stories you wished to produce, a length of five thousand words was the standard length, which in fact allowed you even as you wrote to think about structure in four five-page segments.  This led you to avoiding such publications as you'd discovered in The Writers' Markets and Novel and Short Story Writers' Markets, where there were calls for stories of twenty-five hundred or three thousand words.

Your argument then was that you were scarcely out of the starting blocks at two thousand words.  Soon enough, you ran into an editor who had the effect on your sensitivities similar to a doctor, removing swaths of adhesive tape that had been applied to your chest.  While not as hairy as some chests, your chest has enough hair for the adhesive tape removal to leave you with a response. "Any long work can be shortened,"  the editor told you.  "All you have to do is start taking out words."

"But, but--" you said.

"The fact of you even thinking to protest,"  he said, "makes you a prime candidate for cutting.  Look up William of Occam."

"William of who?"

"You'll see."

You did.

In your reading of those contemporary writers you so much favor, you can't help noticing the remarkable effects of the apparent complexity of the simple nor indeed of the simple elegance resident within the complex.  Although far from the Hemingway fan you once were, you still carry the effect of simplicity in two of his stunning examples, "The Killers," and "Hills Like White Elephants."  And you can not stray from your fondness for William Faulkner's "Spotted Horses," which, only after you have finished reading through it, are you reminded of his sentence lengths and complexity.

And of course, there is this:


No answer.


No. Answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder?  You TOM!"

No answer.


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