Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing
“Rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.”
By Maria Popova
“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon wrote in what remains the finest advice on the creative life I’ve ever encountered. But what, exactly, are the practicalities of that stewardship?
Incidentally, Kenyon was married to Donald Hall (b. September 20, 1928), another poet of enduring wisdom on writing, who addresses this question in the advice peppered throughout his Essays After Eighty (public library) — the terrific volume that gave us Hall on growing old and our cultural attitude toward the elderly.
Generations after Hemingway extolled the rewards of revision, Hall writes:
The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.
Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.
Hall goes on to offer some practical advice on composition and structure:
As I work over clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey. Sentences can be long, three or more complete clauses dancing together, or two clauses with one leaning on the other, or an added phrase of only a few syllables. Sentences and paragraphs are as various as human beings. I like the effect — see John McPhee — of a paragraph three pages long, glued together by transitions that never sound like transitions.
After a three-page paragraph, maybe a one-line blurt.
Half a century after Jack Kerouac contemplated whether writers are born or made, Hall wastes no time on the unanswerable question of genius and instead considers the “problems in writing one can learn to avoid”:
Almost always, in my poems or essays, the end goes on too long. “In case you don’t get it, this is what I just said.” Cut it out. Let the words flash a conclusion, then get out of the way. Sometimes the writer intrudes — me, myself, and I — between the reader and the page. Don’t begin paragraphs with “I.” For that matter, try not to begin sentences with the personal pronoun. Avoid “me” and “my” when you can. Writing memoir, don’t say, “I remember that in my childhood nothing happened to me.” Say, “In childhood nothing happened.”
In a sentiment that calls to mind Cheryl Strayed’s assertion that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Hall adds:
Avoid the personal pronoun when you can — but not the personal. My first book of poems said “I,” but the word was distant, a stiff and poetic “I.” In my best poems and prose I’ve become steadily more naked, with a nakedness that disguises itself by wearing clothes. A scrupulous passion of style — word choice, syntax, punctuation, order, rhythm, specificity — sets forth not only the writer’s rendering of barns and hollyhocks, but the writer’s feelings and counterfeelings.
But Hall’s finest point of advice deals with the psychology rather than the practicality of the craft — and it applies as much to writing as it does to every field of human endeavor. With an eye to the fine line between gratification and grandiosity, he counsels:
It’s okay to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treats you as deathless, but you must not believe it… It is best to believe the praiser and dismiss the praise.
Complement Essays After Eighty with this evolving collection of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.
Published January 25, 2016