Things you can’t say

As an author, the less you say, the better. Strunk and White ring this bell in Rule 17 — omit needless words.

But what if your theme eludes description? You then face two options: dazzling prose, or experience. Novelist Jennifer DuBois provides an example of each in her Word Craft column from last Saturday:

It’s a problem that has called on the gifts of some of our greatest novelists. In “Ada, or Ardor,” Vladimir Nabokov deploys his dazzling prose . . . [so that] we fully attend to what’s being described.

Jennifer Egan sets a different challenge for herself in “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” In the middle of a novel about music (already notoriously difficult to write about), she gives us an autistic boy, Lincoln, who is fascinated by the pauses in pop songs. Lincoln’s subjective experience is unusually defended against efforts at description, and Ms. Egan’s approach to writing about it is elegant—she doesn’t.

One of the book’s most-discussed chapters is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, composed by Lincoln’s sister. It’s an investigation of pauses in pop songs, and when we land on a slide that is blank—a pause—the effect is strangely haunting. Ms. Egan gets us closer to feeling what Lincoln feels than we might have thought possible. Instead of describing an experience for her readers, Ms. Egan actually gives them one.

My favorite writing challenge has always been, “say it better in half the words.” Now there’s a corollary. Say it better in no words.

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