The Power and Danger of Restraint

As of late this blog has been an Alex Belth and FreeDarko appreciation space. That will continue below. Alex wrote a  post on the Banter called “The Power and Beauty of Restraint.” He takes as his starting point a blog post by Esquire’s Chris Jones. Because I cannot resist a craft discussion, in I jump.


We’re taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight. Logically, then, the more words, the better the sentence or paragraph or story. But writing isn’t always a logical exercise. Sometimes—most of the time—it’s about things that are harder to measure.


Man, you’ve got to be ruthless to murder your darlings. It is nothing short of inspiring when the great talents have the conviction to do just that.

The whole essay is worth a read. Glenn Stout brings up poetry: “it not only teaches tangible things like economy, sound and rhythm, but it also teaches that the negative space in writing.” Belth himself brings up painting.

These are much better venues than sports writing to immediately appreciate the value of economy. I had a poetry professor in college named Richard Kenney. He’s a damn fine poet, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever known. If you had a problem – as Belth puts it – murdering your own darlings, then Rick did not. He dismissed stray words and sentences with an executioner’s seething glee.

But it was all for a purpose. The only poems he killed were mercy killings. Rick pruned the excess. He questioned the purpose. He demanded the most. He made us memorize Auden and Keats and Rilke. The first Rilke poem I read with him, “The Legendary Torso of Apollo” serves as an apt metaphor here. It’s a short poem about a statue that over the centuries somehow lost its head. But its decapitated state only serves to strengthen the remaining torso. Apollo’s head is more powerful in absence:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Poetry does not get more economic than that last line: “You must change your life.” There is little economy in what I’m doing right now, which is blatantly appreciating economy. But this is a blog, and it’s my blog, and I have the right. So I continue with Belth’s visual example.

I’m a big fan of the painter Caravaggio and the technique of chiaroscuro which employs stark light/dark contrasts. Caravaggio’s paintings use the negative space, the darkness, the way that great writers can use the space between words and sentences. You can also see this technique in film – especially with a lot of noir stuff. Think about the negative spaces onscreen next time you watch “The Godfather.” Certain scenes resonate visually in almost the same way works by a totally disparate talent like Ernest Hemingway resonate.

I end with Hemingway here because to many people he is an icon in word economy. His story “Hills Like White Elephants” is assigned in college English classes for the clever way it approaches a subject without ever broaching it. His books are easy to read and manage to say a great deal in a small space. Fortunately and unfortunately, his iceberg theory holds up as a modus operandi for students in fiction writing workshops everywhere.

Jones, in his blog post, writes that “we are taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight.” I was lucky. I was taught by my father that for this very reason, words are to be dispensed with great care. If you can’t say something succinctly, don’t say it at all. Or as Ted reminds me sometimes when I send him drafts of long essays, “try harder.”

In this vein, we must all be careful not to use economy as a crutch. I know I have a tendency to do this. Instead of pushing an idea further, to the brink of collapse, I fall back on minimalism. The less you say, the less you are responsible for. This has mostly been an appreciation for Belth’s “power and beauty of restraint.” But I hope it can also be a warning to myself and to others: don’t use restraint as a tool for cheating. And don’t use it for gimmickry either.

Hemingway approaches gimmickry with “Hills Like White Elephants.” But he gave this advice as well as anybody could have. And his iceberg remains the apt metaphor:

If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.

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