Last week, over Thanksgiving, my family all came to me to celebrate because I am somewhat centrally located in DC (I have family in North Carolina and in the Northeast.) They also came to DC to celebrate because I couldn’t afford a plane ticket, but that is neither here nor there.
In any event, we spent a wonderful few days hanging out, cooking, eating, etc. I have a bum knee as a result of a soccer injury, so I didn’t feel like going for too many walks or anything, and neither did my sisters who were both exhausted after a fall of classes/work, so the three of us decided that the motto for the week was going to be “do less.”
This is in reference to the fantastic scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where Paul Rudd’s character teaches Jason Segel’s character how to surf. His only instructions? “Pop up. Do less.” That’s it. Over and over, he emphasizes that the character needs to do less.
So this became our rallying cry. Hey guys, want to help with the dishes? Dad. Do less. Who wants to take a walk to the monuments? Mom. Seriously. Do less.
Aside from the fact that this is probably the greatest holiday motto possible, and a justification for being lazy pieces of shit, I couldn’t help but think about that advice when it comes to something I hold dear to my heart: writing.
I get a fair amount of writing sent to me each week. A lot of times it’s just from a buddy who wants me to look over a grad school admissions essay or something, but I get a fair amount of essays etc. sent to me by youngish writers who want me to take a gander at what they’re doing. And while I’ll write them long things critiquing certain turns of phrase or asking them to further develop thoughts or whatever, 99% of the time my critique can be boiled down to one simple phrase: do less.
Let’s watch the scene here.
I know this sounds ridiculous, and I know this scene is meant to make fun of Paul Rudd’s character, but this is the best advice I’ve ever heard for a young writer.
What do I mean by that? Well, there comes a time in every young writer’s life where they decide they’re going to be a writer. Duh. The problem is, when that happens, a lot of young writers think that it means it’s time to WRITE.
And this is when things get shitty. Because when you try to WRITE, or BE A WRITER, you forget the number one rule of writing. You’re writing to communicate something. To someone else. So that they can understand it.
Writers who decide they want to BE A WRITER forget that, because they’re so concerned with “sounding like a writer” that they become more concerned with sounding smart than they do with communicating what they’re trying to say.
You also see this in grad school. Sadly, most professors never grow out of this phase.
Signs that you’re witnessing a writer trying to BE A WRITER? There are the usual suspects… five words when two will do… A huge amount of abstract nouns show up out of fucking nowhere (effervescence, idiosyncrasy, grace). Adjectives get replaced with longer adjectives (people aren’t sad in this world, they’re MELANCHOLIC, etc.)
So yes, this complaint is obvious, and you’ve heard it before… simple writing is better than complicated writing. Duh. Write for your reader, don’t write to sound smart. Obviously.
Here’s why I love the video above, though. It shows the flip side. It shows how frustrating that advice is to get on the other side, to be the young writer who keeps being told by these older, jaded writers to “do less.”
Why do I know this? Because I’m still a young writer. And I still look for advice. I’m not great yet. I want to be better. And I get the same freaking answers. Because any time an older writer tells me to “do less,” I look at them much the way Jason Segel looks at Paul Rudd. A look that conveys, “Uh, OK, dude. I’ll do less. Now what?” And much like a stoned Paul Rudd, they have no answer. That’s the beauty of trying to teach writing. There is no answer. Just uh, pop up. Do less. Try it again. Do less. Nope, wrong. Do less… well, well, you gotta do more than that. Now you’re not writing. Now you’re just sitting there. Come on, do less! Pop up!
And even after I send it back to an older writer five times, all he can say is what Paul Rudd says: “Well, that wasn’t it. But it’s all good. We’ll figure it out once we get out there.”
So, young writers out there (and yes I include myself), that’s the only advice I have. It’s the only advice I’ve gotten. Pop up. Do less. Do less. Try again. Do less. Try again. And that’s how it goes. You write a little, it sucks. You write some more, it still sucks. Then, one day, it doesn’t suck so much. You’re doing less. You’re getting it. You’re up on the surf board. All right.