I read an article in the NY Times yesterday about Ernest Hemmingway, and as is often the case with Hemmingway, it wasn’t long before the dreaded S Word came up. I am talking of course about style. Don’t get me wrong. I know that by style we often mean the precision and originality of a writer’s language. Precision and originality are all to the good.
But there is a very slippery slope one approaches when talking about style. What begins as simply a different or more practical way to tell a story soon becomes a platform for the writers themselves. Stories become compartmentalized into sentences, each one an example of how well the writer did or did not handle a particular moment. In the end, the stories are not a vehicle for the readers’ transformation, but are instead a test of the writer’s originality and then a test of the reader’s ability to appreciate “good writing.”
Style gets a lot of play because the well-turned phrase is the moment when we as readers most often think, “Wow. That’s some very good writing.” The ego always wants all the attention it can get, and so the temptation remains, especially if you have a particular facility, to perform as many back flips as possible so that in the end you the writer will be remembered more than the story you told.
But if this style is not in absolute service to the story it is nothing. It is a cry for attention. When critics mention the style Hemmingway “discovered,” it is as if he struck out on his own and found a new route through a wintry mountain. And maybe he did, but his tracks were covered as he went. Hemmingway forged this path only because he was searching for what he most wanted to share with the world—a path in which we would all soon get lost if we attempted to follow because we would never really know when we had arrived where he was headed.
You have got to find your own path, and maybe that path will catch people’s attention as Hemmingway’s did and maybe it won’t. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are known for your style. Transformation and revelation and understanding are all. What use is all the clever language in the world if it takes you nowhere? What use is originality if it serves no purpose other than to remind people that you are original? You are always original. Life is original. The sooner you accept this as so the sooner you can forget it and get on with the business of being truly original—which is to say, just you.