The Literary Merits Of Not Showing Off

literary merits

In writing, music, and other art forms, there is a balance between proficiency and showing off. You don’t need the latter to make your point as a writer.

In addition to my work as a writer, I’m an active professional musician, composer, and producer in New York City. I’ve long felt that both disciplines, words and music, exist as two sides of the same creative coin, and I regularly discover unexpected parallels between them.

Case in point: showing off.

If you’re a young musician who is just learning to improvise semi-fluently in jazz, rock, or any similar style, it can be easy to want to play all the notes, all the time. You may have just discovered a whole new wellspring of technique that lets your fingers dance across the guitar’s fretboard, or perhaps you recently had a vocal revelation that allows you to sing higher, louder, and longer than ever before. Performing when you’re in this mindset is very much about exploration and exposition, playing wild with your new superpowers and testing just how far you can push the limitations of your instrument.

For the audience, this sort of performance can be thrilling. But it can also become very numbing, very quickly. The same dynamic is true with writing.

The broader your vocabulary, the more creative your metaphors. The more complex your toolbox of literary techniques, the grander the conceptual and rhetorical sculptures you can create. But with greater powers should come greater restraint. Just like musicians who barrage audiences with notes simply because they can, writers who delight in technique but fall short in meaning can render their audiences numb rather than uplifted.

Thanks to a former editor of mine, I have a go-to antidote whenever I feel that my words may veer into Extreme Performance Writing mode. His advice, which I briefly mentioned in “Cut and Cut (and Cut Again) — The Self-edit Credo,” was simple: Never fall in love with your words. You may create a turn of phrase that is utterly clever and touchingly original — but does it serve your piece as a whole? It’s a simple test to ask yourself if your story, article, memoir, or novel is stronger or weaker for having any given passage in it. If your amazingly crafted paragraph trips readers up rather than moving them deeper into your text, cut it out, no matter how much you may love it.

Don’t throw your great ideas away

Removing a section of text you adore does not mean losing it forever. To borrow again from the world of music, composers and songwriters regularly keep a real or metaphorical trunk for snippets with promise that don’t immediately fit in a particular piece but are too good to trash. At the very least, I recommend keeping a Word/text document or a physical notebook where you put every transcendent passage you create that doesn’t have a home. The next time you hit writer’s block, you know exactly where to start looking for inspiration.

When it comes to both music and writing, the artists I most enjoy are those who seem to have nothing to prove through their technique, those you would never accuse of showing off for showing off’s sake. Here are just a few examples of past masters and current practitioners.

Marian McPartland. This amazing jazz pianist was both a recording artist and the host of a wonderful radio interview series called Piano Jazz. I find her playing to be sparse, meaningful, and unclouded by artifice or pretension. She could say more in a few notes than many younger players could say through an entire album.

Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s short stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” in particular, stuck with me as prime examples of wonderfully subtle technique conveying brilliant meaning. I’m far from the first person to praise how Hemingway could say more in a sentence than many writers could in a chapter.

Billie Holiday. Compared to other jazz singers of note, Holiday displayed modest technical fireworks when she performed. Rather, it was her interpretation, phrasing, and emotion that gave her songs such brilliance and bittersweet richness. She has nothing to prove and everything to share.

Haruki Murakami. I fell in love with Murakami via Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Murakami has been widely praised for the haiku-like poetry that permeates his writing and how he can convey rich layers of meaning and storytelling with simple and transcendent language.

The New York Times. A bastion of journalism for over 160 years, you’ll find that NY Times articles communicate their stories simply and powerfully, almost never showing off through fancy displays of language or rhetoric.

How do you balance technique and meaning in your own writing and avoid employing fancy wordplay or other show-off techniques for their own sake? And who do you think does a great job of creating wonderful meaning with nothing to prove, in writing, music, or beyond? Let us know in the comments below.


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