Dani Shapiro
November 17, 2009

On Precision

These days, I often tell people not to read my early books. I inwardly cringe when someone tells me they’re reading either of my first two novels. Years ago, while talking with the writer Peter Matthiessen, he told me that his early books weren’t worth reading. I remember, at the time, watching the old master wave his hand impatiently, as if swatting away a pesky fly. I realized, with a start, that he was dismissing more books than I had even written at the time. I couldn’t imagine that I would ever feel that way. I had been profoundly attached to each book as I was writing it. I had loved them as if they were my babies–which, in a way, they were. How could I ever feel that they weren’t worth reading?

I’m seven books into this life, now. Seven books, and I can say with clarity and confidence that each of my books has been better than the last. Slow Motion was a better book than Picturing the Wreck. Black & White a more controlled and disciplined novel than Family History. Devotion, I am convinced, is my strongest book yet. I stand by those books, but I also can see the progression. I have been learning on the job all along. Is there any other way for a writer to learn? Occasionally a story emerges of a writer who holes up, spends decades in a garret, wherever garrets still exist, and enters the world fully formed, clutching a masterpiece. More often, we develop as we go.

Which brings me to precision. When I was writing my first couple of novels, I was in love with language. I’m still in love with language–but that earlier love was a blind, passionate kind of love, the kind that doesn’t allow you to see anything for what it is. I loved the sound of words, indeed, I often read them aloud to myself as I sat at my desk. When writing description, I believed that more was better. Why use one simile when you could use three? I heaped words onto the page until the very thing I was describing sank beneath the weight of the words, like one of those ice cream sundaes with too many toppings. The flavors competed. The cherry bled into the whipped cream. The whole thing melted into a giant, meaningless mess.

Over the years, my prose has become leaner. Adverbs have pretty much bitten the dust, and adjectives had better be doing their job or I show them the door too. And when I read, I am also looking for that precision. It’s incredibly hard to find just the right word. So much easier to layer on pretty words that are the literary equivalent of distracting a toddler. Look, honey! Over there–at the red balloon! The reader’s attention is diverted from the fact that the writer hasn’t nailed it. Once, in graduate school, my favorite teacher and mentor warned me against exactly this kind of pretty language: “You know how to make something sound beautiful,” he said. “Just be sure it’s actually saying something.”

Maybe it has to do with getting older. Maybe it has to do with the lessons learned from writing seven books. But now, when I sit down to write, I do so with the awareness that there is no clever substitute for exactly the right word. I’m less interested in writing something beautiful than something true.