The days of Marcel Proust are over. Writing single sentences that stretch out to 600 words won’t impress anyone. As Hemingway famously replied to Faulkner’s accusation that he didn’t know how to use big words: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
I certainly don’t think so. Hemingway was a renowned minimalist. His iceberg theory put to bed – or so we thought – the rambling, chest-beating brainy prose of the likes of Joyce and Proust. However, there’s more to minimalism than Hemingway.
Being able to conjure up broad, intimate images in a reader’s mind with only a few signpost words is a greater feeling than word-vomit, I think. Think of a simplistic Japanese painting or even a tranquil Van Gogh.
There is beauty all around us. A writer’s task is not to show us how good his writing is, it’s showing us a new perspective on the beauty we see.
Being a minimalist writer is being a selfless writer. It is about trusting the reader to concoct his own images. Minimalist writing is about guiding the reader, only that, giving him a helping hand. It’s not about dominating him. Not anymore.
So here are some tips on how to maximise the powers of minimalism in your writing.
- Read Japanese literature
From Yasunari Kawabata to Yukio Mishima and the more contemporary Banana Yoshimoto. Japanese literature, like its art, is stripped bare. It is haiku in prose. Stories float on the wings of atmosphere.
I’ll let the beauty of Japanese literature speak for itself with some sample passages.
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.
A girl who had been sitting on the other side of the car came over and opened the window in front of Shimamura. The snowy cold poured in. Leaning far out the window, the girl called to the station master as though he were a great distance away.”
Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country
See how easily this flows? The paragraphs are short like stanzas. “The earth lay white under the night sky.” What a beautiful contrast between the white earth and the dark night. That simple play of colours elicits a perfect hallucination of reality. “The snowy cold poured in.” Only five words in that sentence – but you can just feel that snowy cold.
Snow Country is a masterpiece of poetic, minimal writing.
“In the pale light of daybreak the gravestones looked like so many white sails that would never again be filled with wind, sails that, too long unused and heavily drooping, had been turned into stone just as they were. The boats’ anchors had been thrust so deeply into the dark earth that they could never again be raised.”
Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves
“Pale light of daybreak,” the words are few but carefully chosen. The contrast between gravestones and white sails is like a counterpoint in music. “White sails that would never again be filled with wind”, none of the words here are big or intellectual, yet they are full of a heavy sorrow which is mysterious and light-footed. Not an easy feat.
“This world of ours is piled high with farewells and goodbyes of so many different kinds, like the evening sky renewing itself again and again from one instant to the next-and I didn’t want to forget a single one.”
Banana Yoshimoto, Goodbye Tsugumi
There is an irresistible sing-song cadence to this passage which is achieved not through quantity but flow. “Farewells and goodbyes”, “again and again from one instant to the next”; the passage oozes urgency and yet it feels like one of those dreams where no matter how hard you run you stay rooted in the same place.
- Read Poetry – Minimalist Poetry
Do you find it annoying when someone describes a novel as being ‘poetic’? I do. We’ve all done it. I have. It’s as if poetry is a homogenous thing. As if there’s only one kind of poetry. As if Shakespearean sonnets and haikus belong on the same scale.
The kind of poetry I have always admired is the minimalist one. And when that kind of poetry is introduced into prose it can create a great fluttering of the imagination.
Think of Federico Garcia Lorca:
“But like love
Upon the green night,
the piercing saetas
leave traces of warm
Think of Pablo Neruda:
“When I close a book
I open life.
slide down sand-pits
Think of Matsuo Basho:
“By the old temple,
a man treading rice.”
All of them evoke entire stories utilising a simplistic structure. Look at Basho’s haiku. The reader begins thinking: why is that man treading rice, he sounds poor, yet his surroundings, with blossoms and old temples, sound so rich! You feel curious. And the archers of Lorca, why are they blind, why is love blind? No need for monologues here. Only daydreaming.
- There is Architecture to Minimalism
Minimalist writing isn’t just about scarcity and simplicity. It’s about structure. Read Kawabata and you’ll notice very short paragraphs throughout. This gives the feeling of pace and fast flow.
Hemingway liked to build long sentences using ‘and’ as punctuation, imposing stream of consciousness methods onto the landscape.
“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”
This is a sample from the opening paragraph of A Farewell To Arms. The repetition of ‘and’ feels like a prayer, jumping from one landscape into the next. It leaves you breathless, making you think it’s saying a lot, but really, it’s only showing you a fragment of an atmosphere. The word “swiftly” helps the sentence too, but then, you get texture, “dry”, then colour, “blue”, and then finally the evocative sentence comes to rest.
Minimalism isn’t easy. It’s all about structure. Without it, it becomes mere childishness.
- Be Sensual
Alright, not in that way. I’m using sensual here in its original form. Full of the senses. Minimalist writing economises on words. So the words you use have to stand up and be counted. Minimalism isn’t about being cheap and lazy. Rather, it is like a home cook making an amazing meal out of mere offal.
Minimalist writing is evocative – if done right. Take this passage by George Orwell, who wasn’t exactly a minimalist but he was an excellent sensualist:
“In spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, the prisoner stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path on the way to the gallows. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.”
What an odd, random fact to focus on and observe. The fact that a man going to the gallows would step aside to avoid a puddle. That simple observation literally puts us in the condemned man’s shoes.
We can’t imagine what walking to the gallows is like. Most of us. So writing about such a character might make him feel distant from readers. But stepping “slightly” aside to avoid a puddle makes him feel intimately human. And it’s so simply done.
- Cut Out the Noise
I have read – we have all read – novels who have passages that go on for so long that they become mundane and never-ending. A later work of Yukio Mishima’s, The Temple of Dawn, involves a piece, over 30 pages long, detailing the history of Buddhism.
With all due respect to Mishima, who is one of my literary icons, if I wanted to read about the history of Buddhism, I’d buy a book about the history of Buddhism.
The mood of that novel is changed. The beautiful, colourful descriptions of Thailand, its landscapes full of temples and rivers, suddenly get drowned by a large chunk of academia. What does it add to the story?
I can only think of one writer who can balance self-indulgence with poetic writing: Milan Kundera. But he’s an exception. Don’t try to write like him, you’ll fail.
It’s not a novelist’s job to teach. It’s his job to make people feel. You want to write about the history of the Iraq War? Fine, do so. But don’t preach. Immerse the reader in the atmosphere of the Iraq War. Let him feel it and come to his own conclusions. If he wants details he can Google them. But you can’t Google sensations.