The Fourth Plateau
The process of learning to write is a series of stages.
The first is that of being absolutely awful. No matter how beautiful something sounds in your head, it always, always, always looks atrocious on the page. There’s no sense of rhythm or voice or, least of all, subtlety. You always say exactly what you’re thinking, and produce something excruciatingly one-dimensional. Then you take a few writing classes, you buy a few books, you learn a few things. That’s when you enter the second stage, that of gratuitous subtlety. Once you encounter the concept of subtext, and the importance of staying off-the-nose, you’re eager to demonstrate your newfound expertise. You begin to produce writing that is so subtle, so devoid of any relevant information, that it becomes impossible to follow.
The third plateau, where I like to think I am now, is a combination of the first two. You’re subtle enough to be interesting, but you’ve practiced and read enough to be clear. Your technical skills are getting better, and you’re beginning to write things that are almost readable. Cool!
The last plateau, on which I’ve started to cast my eye, is the ability to speak multitudes while saying virtually nothing. I’m constantly in awe of elite writers’ ability to use a few ambiguous words to paint a picture that means something different to each reader.
Yesterday, a friend and I were discussing John Barlow’s lyrics to “Black Throated Wind.” The cosmic song about the loneliness of hitchhiking is undeniably beautiful, regardless of who hears it, but everyone comes away feeling something different. Take the three best stanzas:
I left St. Louis, the City of Blues
In the midst of a storm I’d rather forget
I tried to pretend it came to an end
‘Cause you weren’t the woman I thought I once met
But I can’t deny that times have gone by
When I never had doubts or thoughts of regret
And I was a man when all this began
Who wouldn’t think twice about being there yet
The black-throated wind keeps on pouring in
And it speaks of a life that passes like dew
It’s forced me to see that you’ve done better by me
Better by me than I’ve done by you
The song is obviously about a man hitchhiking, trying to get away from St. Louis after a bad breakup. But the ambiguity of the lyrics, particularly those last two lines, leave the details of the separation up for interpretation. Reasonable people often disagree about whether he’s realizing that he was nicer to her than she was to him, and that he can do better. Or whether he regrets that she treated him better, and that he blew an opportunity.
It almost doesn’t matter what meaning the writer intended. The words flow together so perfectly that they’ve taken on a life of their own, completely independent of their author. The pure aesthetic beauty of the words creates something that looks different to each viewer, based on their own experiences.
This is the fourth plateau that I’m currently chasing. The ability to produce writing that is so objectively good that it exists separately from my own voice. The gap from the third and fourth plateau is probably the biggest, but it’s an intangible goal that keeps me focused every day.