Just finished a very good read- Teju Cole’s ‘Open City.’ Besides admiring his ability to enter the lives of a cast of characters on his walks in New York City and Europe, I was struck by his discipline as a writer. While most of the work has the almost halcyon, meandering (in a good way) style of WB Sebald, there is one stunning and very specific revelation towards the end. I will not spoil it, but Cole just lets the revelation hang there. That is, he doesn’t delve into it- or at least not to any length; there is no real examination of the narrator’s reaction to this unexpected turn. I’m not sure if it entirely works, as the narrator is so remarkably reticent about it, but I’m in awe of the discipline of Cole as a writer, to just let it hang, and not to overwrite, not to go on and on (as I do here…).
That’s one of the hardest things as a writer, the ability to rein things in. To reveal only the tip of the iceberg, to kill your babies- all those writing clichés. Readers, viewers, listeners have so much of themselves to bring to the drama, that a work becomes much more multi-faceted when things are left unsaid, when it’s not only the writer speaking. The subtext can be filled beyond the limitations of one mind.
[I know this is my greatest fault as a writer- this kind of discipline. It’s like once you realize you have a set of skills, it becomes an enormous toy box, and naturally you want to play with your toys. Being told ‘you have a way with dialogue’ is like telling a musician ‘you really know how to play chords.’ Lots of people can play chords. But to make a great song- that’s another manner.
Or, to put it more pessimistically in the screenwriting world:
‘As an American occupation, screenwriting has replaced knitting which it, in some ways, resembles: the rules for both are simple, and both involve sheep.’