“When accessorizing, always take off the last thing you put on.”
Coco Chanel was celebrated as a titan of fashion, but as an artist of style, she understood the power of simplicity as much as any great poet. As writers, we often do not leave our best work on the page because we don’t edit enough. It’s not a literary sin, but it is a tragedy when we are not able to offer more essence because we’ve fallen in love with our voice, our dazzle with words, more than what we have to say with it.
This is not meant to make you feel guilty. If we’re being honest, it happens to all of us.
One of the easiest ways to cure the ailment in this case is to appreciate its roots. Writing is giving birth. It the rare process of you, as animal, being both mother and father to an offspring. There is a necessary narcissism in creating a being that you want others to love the way you do, and it is hard to think of it as imperfect or incomplete. We are eager to introduce our child to the world. So much so that sometimes we are reluctant to see if it is truly ready for a public debut. We sometimes unleash brats: kids that are all over the place, despite our adoration of them. Many of us, particularly in the early stages of our careers as poets, revere the divine inspiration that grants us a poem seemingly out of nowhere—the poem came to me complete—so that to touch it further would be to disrespect the gods who anointed us with it. The truth is that most first passes of poems, regardless of their muse, are not as good as they could be. Yet. Writing, whether mystically sparked or not, is ultimately a craft. And, as such, it requires work and commitment to excellence in order to be palatable to an audience. In order to be the best version of what you want to say. This is the hard part. Telling yourself that the gut-wrenching truth you loved yourself to seed, labored for hours over, and screamed into existence is still not perfect. But, it is important to also tell yourself that great writers edit. And, in fact, editing, more than inspiration, makes these writers great. The whittle and prune and chisel, leaving only what must be said, is what makes the details sing.
Ask yourself: have I said this idea once and well already, do I need all of these words to say this one thing, can I say this one thing beautifully in a way no one has before (including me), could I end this poem earlier?
Although legendary novelist William Faulkner said famously and brutally about this process, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings,” it may be worth thinking instead of the goal as envisioning the final product as a cherished darling that you are teaching how to behave.
Accept the reality that it is easier to give birth than to discipline your children so that they will live a long and beautiful life.
Even if you use more than 17 syllables, you can be haiku: you can say more with less.
In the words of Outkast, by way of Coco Chanel:
“Baby, take off your cool; I wanna see you…”