Ninety-Proof Ink

2013-06-08

I have come to love short books. As evidence: both The Tao of Roark and Letters on Happiness are less than 60 pages long in the print-on-demand versions I recently produced.

But brevity is hard. It is what Yevgeny Zamyatin called "the art of writing with ninety-proof ink". In his essay Theme and Plot, he observed:

Crossing out is an art that is, perhaps, even more difficult than writing. It requires the sharpest eye to decide what is superfluous and must be removed. And it requires ruthlessness toward yourself -- the greatest ruthlessness and self-sacrifice. You must know how to sacrifice parts in the name of the whole.

In my own writing, I find it easier never to let the superfluous in than to allow text that I will need to remove anyway. This requires a kind of alcoholic fermentation and distillation, if you will: reading, absorbing, mashing ideas about in my subconscious, filtering the extraneous particles of thought, removing the more volatile molecules to find the essence of an idea. That's why it took me seventeen years to write The Tao of Roark and five years to write Letters on Happiness, each of which can be read in an hour or so.

The next book in this series of philosophers on happiness will be about Nietzsche (the working title is Songs of Zarathustra since I'm thinking about composing a series of philosophical poems). I'm currently re-reading all of his works in chronological order, and I must say I'm getting frustrated by his long-windedness in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Get to the point already, I keep thinking! But I must be patient so that I can absorb what wisdom he has provided and then distill it into a book that is brief and strong. I hope it won't take me five years, but I make no promises. As Blaise Pascal once said: "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time."


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