DOWN AND OUT IN A PAPER BAG

“Joel Barlow Stone. I’m sorry, but you stink!”1

It seems to me that when writers write about writing, the writing they’re doing — the writing they’re doing at that moment — is always bad writing. I’d call it an axiom. I’m speaking of a category of reductive truisms, tips I guess you’d call them, of the kind that illustrious writers — or  authors, in the vernacular of the pretentious  sagaciously declaim just as we’re nodding off. How to do it. How to write well. (What I am not referring to is literary theory. Nor to instances of specific commentary on specific works, or to what would be referred to as literary criticism). And it seems to me that this is true, this axiom, even when the writing they’re doing is in some purely intrinsic sense good writing: mellifluous, articulate, intelligent.

I see I’ve wedged myself into a corner already — the sort of corner, or trap you might say, whose only way out happens to be its way in. I’m doing the very thing I hoped to impugn, writing about writing. And it’s the sort of corner we sometimes refer to by another commonplace and similarly trite expression: paper bag. We say, “So-and-so wouldn’t be able to write his way out of a paper bag.” (This cliche of course a declines from an older hyperbole, a boxing put-down: the inability to fight one’s way out of a paper bag.2) Not only a trap, therefore, but a crappy one, a trap that should be — you’d think — embarrassingly easy to escape from. And crappy in another sense, too: if you’re stuck in a paper bag, wouldn’t this reflect on the scale of your ambition? A paper bag would barely hold anything. Besides which, we’re talking about paper, not case-harded steel. You wouldn’t need to be Houdini, not even so much as a washed-up pugilist, to extricate yourself. A totally out-of-shape writer — a chainsmoker in a bathrobe, fantastically inebriated, an author — ought to be able to do that.

Not only cornered but woefully off-topic. Back to the point. I used to believe that writing — good writing — was a skill that helped you thrash your way out of paper bags that you’d ended up in by writing badly. Another way to state this, or perhaps as a corollary and no less dubious, is that good writing is merely bad writing from which glitches and crummy grammar, the usual sundry crudenesses, have been removed. Something along the lines of Michelangelo’s assertion in his Sonnet 151:

Non ha l’ ottimo artista alcun concetto
che un marmo solo in sé non circonscriva
col suo soverchio; e solo a quello arriva
la man che obbedisce all’ intelletto.3

On this model, your prose exists first as a heavy, formless chunk. Somewhere inside that heavy, formless chunk lies the “good writing.” The good writing will be revealed, exposed, as excess verbiage — like superfluous marble — gets gradually, painstakingly, chiseled away. Having begun with bad writing, so that line of thinking goes, with ineffectual or inelegant writing, the next step is simply to fix it.

Gable as Jim Gannon, city editor of the New York Evening Chronicle
Gable as Jim Gannon, city editor of the New York Evening Chronicle

Not that there isn’t some validity to this binary hypothesis. Obviously very little of what we would call good writing emerges that way ex nihilo, requiring no correction, no restructuring, no reworking of infelicitous phrases or off-putting rhythms. That is, no editing. Recently, looking back over a piece of my own writing, which I had believed to be finished, I spotted an inadvertent repetition: I had used the comparative qualifier “even” several times within a single paragraph. In each case my intent would have been to draw specific, emphatic attention to something normally thought to lie beyond the boundaries of the category in question. Cats snore. People snore. Even iguanas snore. That sort of thing. Here, “even” identifies a slightly upsetting need to amend our beliefs. We’ve been remiss, parochial. A small or unusual group of items (or phenomena or beings, widgets, you name it) proves to be, upon closer inspection, rather more expansive, rather more inclusive, than we had realized. What the qualifier singles out is meant to impress us as fairly surprising counter-evidence to conventional wisdom. It’s an aberration that turns out not to be an aberration but an outlier. Here’s something weird, it says; here’s something that shouldn’t have belonged, yet does and therefore undermines our preconception. To function at all, an even of this kind has to be, conspicuously, the only even in its immediate vicinity. You can’t have two or three of these things in near-abutting proximity, each pretending to be on its own, each sounding its own red alert. So one of mine could stay; the others had to go. And having decided which were to go and which to stay, I imagined — again! — that I was done, that I was finished, because the writing had gone from bad to good. Hadn’t it?

My doorstop: Liddell & Scott, Oxford University Press, 1889
My doorstop: Liddell & Scott, Oxford University Press, 1889

That mistake — my too many evens being a mere example — is the kind of mistake, fixable or unfixable, that may register on your consciousness only days after committing it. Or weeks, as in the situation above. Discoveries of such blunders disconcert, rankle. They prove you were not fully cerebral in the moment of ineptitude. Sheer ignorance would be bad enough but excusable; that’s just DNA, after all, or the exigencies of a pitiful life. Far worse is knowing better and then screwing up anyway. Your pride takes a hit. No big deal if you catch the mistake before your draft becomes public record — graven in stone or tattooed onto someone’s inner thigh. You correct it, substituting some other word that performs more or less the same function. Or you rejigger the syntax in a way that sidesteps your conundrum altogether. But damage will have been done regardless. Panic allayed, doubt lingers.

Getting back to that sonnet of Michelangelo’s: the poem is itself an instance of fairly bad writing. I mean, apart from an arresting premise, it’s not a particularly sophisticated sonnet. I suppose you could say that it’s competent. Good for a sculptor, maybe; good for a painter. Then again, Michelangelo is not famous for his poetry. His poetry may be famous, but only because the kid could paint and sculpt quite well. And if No. 151 had been good — a good poem and a good sonnet, and for that reason an example, arguably, of good writing — it still wouldn’t have put him inside our paper bag. For while Michelangelo’s sonnet is indeed writing that is about art — and by extension about creativity in a more general sense — it isn’t about the art of writing. It’s about statuary.

A much finer sonnet is Seamus Heaney’s “The Forge.” This is the real thing. It’s not just a skillful poem; it’s as skillful as writing can be. Hephaestus, to whom — for a touch of mythic cred, I guess? — Heaney obliquely refers without quite naming, would have been proud. Like some of Lowell’s sonnets in History, say, or those in Geoffrey Hill’s Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England, “The Forge” reanimates its squeaky, clanking form; it makes the sonnet viable as a technical apparatus in modern verse. Pretty much everything that can be done in prosody is getting done here: a noisy amplitude and a concentration of imagery, a quality of speech that is at once ordinary and startling, each singular effect perfectly imbricated within its greater construction. At the same time, something has gone terribly wrong. The message of “The Forge,” its allegoric content, however formally cohesive, feels to me stilted and hermetic. What can I say? It’s a commentary on writing. It’s writing about writing.

… The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music. …4

The figure of the blacksmith stands in for the poet, the “maker” of its Greek root-word ποιητής. The work of the poet, that anachronistic skill (his local milieu now swarming with cars rather than horses), remains admirable for its being a dirty job, pounded out by hand, authentic. The problem is, nobody asked. The whole thing comes off as self-justification, mainly because it’s too calculated, too damned obvious. (I’m reminded of that ridiculous quip of Red Smith’s about the difficulty of the writer’s craft: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Papa Hemingway, who occasionally did some good writing — though not tons in my opinion — and to whom Smith’s lurid platitude is often, in fact almost always, misattributed, didn’t bleed when he wrote. But he bled like hell, presumably, after wedging a favorite shotgun under his chin and squeezing the trigger. I mention this fact for one reason. The dire consequences, tragic consequences, of really shooting yourself in the head — these absolutely underscore the vapid pomposity of comparing the work of writing, the craft of writing, to an act of suicide, to opening your veins and bleeding to death.) No one — no one who’s ever inscribed a birthday card, let alone attempted a sonnet in English — would question that Heaney’s vocation, the vocation of writing, is a hard vocation. What it isn’t, however, is shaping horseshoes from scrap-iron. Even to the extent to which his figurative comparison is earned, it fails to convince for being too thinly veiled a conceit. (Consider the etymology of allegory as depicted in my beloved Liddell and Scott, one strong thread of which is “to harangue.”5)

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At this point I’m not sure what it is, what good writing is. My hunch is that it’s much, much more than jury-rigged bad writing. Bad writing, on the other hand, I feel I understand a little better, although I have long since changed my idea about that as well, about what bad writing is. Bad writing, I would submit, is good writing that covers up bad thinking. You don’t write your way — either expertly or poorly — into that paper bag; you think your way in. You write your way out. In fact you don’t even quite do that. What you really do is use good writing — your skill of writing well — to cover the opening of the bag. It’s like nailing boards over a broken window. You’re in a hurry. It’s carpentry, but it’s not really the carpentry that concerns you. What concerns you, what worries you, is that unless you’re quick someone might sneak inside, might catch you being stupid in there. There’s your allegory.


1. School-of-hard-knocks journalist Clark Gable thoroughly teed off as he reads a celebrated editorial penned by Doris Day’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dad, in Teacher’s Pet, 1958

2. Here’s the earliest citation of the paper bag motif that I could locate, a boxing report: “Kid Andreas and Bantam Gripon did a brother act in the first [round]. Each refused to strike the other, but seemed content to pose and feint. Neither one of them could fight their way out of a paper bag.” The Garden IslandJanuary 10, 1922, p. 5, image 5

3. “Not even the best of artists has any conception/ that a single marble block does not contain/ within its excess, and that is only attained/ by the hand that obeys the intellect.” Sonnet 151, The Poetry of Michelangelo, Translation by James M. Saslow, Yale University Press, 1991

4. Seamus Heaney, “The Forge,” Door Into the Dark, Faber and Faber, 1969

5. ‘A.“ἀγόρευον”  Il.1.385: fut. “-εύσω”  Hom., Alciphr.3.52Philostr.VA4.45: aor. “-ευσα”  Hom., D.H.1.65, Luc.Pisc.15: pf. “-ευκα”  Lib.Or.37.4: 1 aor. Pass. -εύθην (προσ-) Str.3.3.5: in compds. these tenses and pf. Pass. -ευμαι are found in early Prose and Att. Inscrr., the simple vb. only in pres. and impf.:—speak in the assembly, harangue …’
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1940


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