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Bad Advice From a Good Writer

Whatever one wishes to say, there is one noun only by which to express it, one verb only to give it life, one adjective only which will describe it.  One must search until one has discovered them, this noun, this verb, this adjective, and never rest content with approximations, never resort to trickery, however happy, or to vulgarisms, in order to dodge the difficulty.

—Guy de Maupassant

This passage first seemed sensible enough to us, and then it began to trouble us vaguely.  For a while we thought it was our old difficulty with received wisdom: gospels have always produced doubt in us, not belief.  But then we found, to our dismay, that we not only didn’t believe de Maupassant’s assertion, we finally couldn’t even make any sense of it.  Take the statement that “Whatever one wishes to say, there is one noun only by which to express it, one verb only to give it life, one adjective only which will describe it.”  One writer refers to this as “a classic bit of advice that every writer should heed,” yet we can’t think of any way that this can be taken for a true or even a helpful statement.  It is obviously untrue if applied to a group of writers, for anything they expressed they would express idiosyncratically.  Twain and Thoreau, forced to express the same thought, would create as much difference as similarity.  We rescue ourselves from this difficulty by supposing—and we guess this must be true—that de Maupassant meant the statement to refer to the efforts of a single writer.  For that writer, writing on his particular subject, there is only one noun, only one verb, etc.

The trouble is, that’s not true either, unless it’s read as a tautology, in which case it’s silly.  De Maupassant’s view makes the seemingly reasonable assumption that the whole point of writing is to match up meaning with words, the way you match up dominoes by their number of white dots.  But competent writers, playing dominos the way they write, would convince the other players that they could play on a six by combining two threes, or that a nine could be played as a three because three is, after all, the square root of nine.  The nine is simply bursting with threeness.

Expressions are vivid only if they are unknown; but if a word is unknown, then it can’t do one of its jobs, which is to convey meaning.  So writers devote themselves to using the old words in new ways.  It is not new wine in new bottles, as recommended in scripture, but old wine in new bottles.  We shall consider the construction of those new bottles presently.

Originally published in another dementia on August 20, 2011