A Gift to Be Simple



Sometimes in a writing class or workshop you come across someone who’s trying to “write like a writer”–using fancy vocabulary and complicated sentences because…”That’s what writers do.” Sometimes they’re imitating a particular writer they admire. That’s understandable for someone still trying to find their own voice. If you want to become a painter, part of the traditional training is to copy the masters.

If your true calling as a poet or prose writer, your authentic voice, is to write like Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce or Ezra Pound, then more power to you. But though it might seem counterintuitive to some, sometimes the most powerful and profound writing at first glance might seem simple. One great example is The Good Earth, Pearl Buck’s poignant novel about a poor Chinese farmer living through the sweeping changes that moved his country from ancient agrarian times to the modern world in one generation. Another example is Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the tale of an old fisherman’s struggle to land a giant marlin.

Both books were written at an eighth- to ninth-grade reading comprehension level. Both books won the Nobel Prize for Literature,

Of course there’s a place for elegant and sophisticated language a la Pynchon or Joyce. But for many writers, our challenge is to communicate profound ideas with plain language. But “plain” doesn’t mean artless. A serious examination of Buck’s and Hemingway’s prose leaves the reader gobsmacked at the level of sophistication and craft.

Another way to think about this: Imagine conversing with a stranger on a cross-country flight and something you mention makes them say, “Really? That’s interesting. Tell me about it.” How do you tell your story? Like a “writer” with high-falutin vocabulary and sentence construction? Or in “ordinary” language used with subtlety and skill? An oversimplification, of course, but something to consider.

We might keep in mind the words of Albert Einstein (a pretty smart guy): “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”