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Clutter, clutter everywhere


Recently I have been revisiting — for the 1,456,897 time — the works of one William Zinsser. William Knowlton Zinsser was born in October of 1922 and built a dazzling career over the ensuing 92 years as a teacher, scholar, journalist and writer. He wrote a book that I see as the Bible for Writers, On Writing Well. The work is so timeless it has been updated for 30 editions and still holds the core values it always has.

One of those values is based on what Zinsser called the "disease of American writing"; clutter.

Obligatory quote, mainly because the man's dry wit and humor make me belly laugh:

"Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon."

I hope to be one-half the wordsmith that man is, if I live to see the century mark. I find the chapter containing this quote — called Clarity — has improved my writing more than the famously quoted bits about how one can only learn to write by writing (the "truism" of writing, according to Zinsser) because my writing suffered so terribly from clutter.

I always found myself marveling at how smoothly the British authors I cut my teeth on wrote compared to the old American masters. I always wished it for myself, but I didn't begin to realize the why of it until one really dark day in 2016.

I had submitted a story to an upcoming anthology from a curt (and rather dull if you ask my stung 2016 self) Australian writer. He wrote me back that I needed to take some writing classes, and that my writing wasn't what he was looking for. He said it was sad because my stories had some spark, but I'd sent him one of the worst (don't look for it in Stuff: Tales from Places, you won't find it there [do look for the errant plus sign and commit that page number to memory, though]).

I read the story over as a reader, not a proofreader and I knew it was too much. But, why? Was it cheesy? Was it disjointed? Jarring? Outlined poorly? I couldn't put my finger on it. So, I fell into a depression, as one does sometimes.

I hit a slump, a block, a writing dry spell for the ages. It lasted months, though, not the usual days. A while on, as I often do, I picked up the most useful university text of my life, and happened to turn to the chapter on clarity. It opens with the quote above.

I sat in front of a humid RV park laundromat in the Florida winter, underneath a terrible fluorescent light and I gawped.

That night, it had been three months-ish since I'd received that rejection email, or since I'd written a jot. I was living off of commercial acting gigs and whatever money my now ex-wife was making. I had decided my acting and writing dreams were going down the toilet, but that chapter gave me a new lease on creativity, and that's when I began creating the Mea Mall universe, the universe of Stuff.

I wrote a few episodes of a serial podcast called Arkham Noir (Cthulhu lore, not Batman), and I was back. I started on what will now be the second novel in the Mea series, and the rest many of you know. I moved back to Fort Smith, became a SAG-eligible actor, a teacher, an actually decent husband (took me three tries), a dad and now a Red Engine Press published author!

I say all of this to say, keep an eye out for a soon-to-come workshop on clutter in American writing from the Fort Smith Writer's Guild. You might know the guy teaching it!

Also, don't forget to come see me on Saturday (9/9/23) at Hidden Talent Fine Art Gallery (14 N 3rd Street in Fort Smith) at 3 p.m. for the gala release event for Stuff!


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