The virtues of writing that's boring

Up close: A view of Weatherford's neon-lit mural. Of the name Sartoris, Faulkner wrote: "For there is death in the sound of it,  and a glamorous fatality, like silver pennons downrushing at sunset, or a dying fall of horns along the road to Roncevaux."

Malcolm Cowley used one word to describe that sentence:


Really? Overwriting? The poetry of it stunned me (and still does); so did Cowley's dismissal of it.  But I didn't care -- didn't care what that crusty old critic thought; Malcolm, the writing in Flags in the Dust is still one of F's best no matter what you think.

It's the first time his vision of Yoknapatawpha ever fully rushed out of him.  I love that book's enthusiasm, confidence, roughness, unevenness, humanity.  It's Faulkner the flesh-and-blood writer long before he slipped into the great Southern persona of his later works.

But I remembered Cowley's judgement last week as I listened to a public talk given by abstract painter Mary Weatherford at Claremont McKenna College. She said something that makes so much sense to me, even though she was talking about a mural, not a text.  She described how some parts of the mural don't do anything special.  She kept them intentionally boring.  She said,

"It can't all be interesting. There have to be boring parts. If it's all interesting, it kills itself.  I had to make some parts boring so that other parts could flourish."

When her interviewer protested against her use of the word "boring," she revised herself. Instead, she said, she "quieted down" parts of her mural.  As I've been revising my own novel, this is essentially what I've been doing--quieting down some narrative sections in order to allow others to flourish.


SHHH: St. Nepomuk, patron saint of secrets and silence.


When I look back at my earliest draft, I see a writer who's trying so hard to make everything, every detail, every transition, into something interesting.  I've mentioned a little of that already in a previous post ("Writing and the six a.m. brain") where I replaced an overwritten sentence with a simpler alternative.

This, for me, is the essence of the revision process.  I think it's true whether you're working with a text or a canvas and gallons of paint.

So, after listening to Weatherford, I thought, "Maybe Cowley was right." Maybe Faulkner could have quieted down that closing sentence.

But he didn't.  And I'm glad.  It's a beautiful sentence.  Cowley's still wrong -- but at least I can understand better why he said it.