Friday, November 09, 2007

The "Better" Button

Here's a way of working that I've found to be very productive. I've actually used this way of working for years, but hadn't formulated it in quite these terms till recently. (The terminology itself comes from my partners in Liquid Crystal Gallery, Al Jewer and Andy Mitran.)

This way of working involves piling in everything I think I might want in a piece—a Photoshop collage, for example, or a musical composition, or a free-flowing prose-poem—until there is too much material at hand.

Then, I start eliminating chaff. It's the principle of the sculptor who works in marble: you get rid of every bit of the original block of stone that isn't the sculpture.

I delete things that were maybe good ideas in themselves, but aren't going to work here, after all, in the finished piece. I delete layers and side-thoughts that make the piece too cluttered. I delete side-topics and distractions. I shave away parts of an element that distract, or waste space and time, leaving behind only the core image, or core musical theme, or core thought in the poem. I delete, re-arrange, delete some more, and eventually the final piece comes into focus, revealing itself as emergent from the chaos I started with. With a few last touch-ups and polishes, it is done.

That's why we call the Delete key The "Better" Button: every time you use it, the piece gets better.

In poetry, the Better Button is particularly useful during revision. When you're first writing, let it all spew out, as you would in your journal, or in conversation. Then, as you go back through what you have written, start deleting the chaff. Take away everything that distracts. Remove every side-conversation, to intensify the focus on the central core of the piece. Delete all those extra little words that don't add anything, but are just filler. You can usualyl use fewer adjectives; you can almost always remove a few more "the"s and "and"s. Focus and compress. Go for concision. Use the Better Button ruthlessly. If you started with a long poem, and all you have left at the end is a good haiku, that will have been worth every deletion.

This, in essence, is the principle of reducing chaotic complexity and clutter to elegant simplicity. As Saint-Exupéry said, perfection is achieved not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away. You discover structure within chaos; elegant form emerges from clutter. You have to start out with that mess, though, and make a real mess, so that you can clean up and discover the final form within. It usually lets you know on its own, revealing itself as you continue to carve things away.

So, use the Better Button. use it early and often. It's right there on your keyboard, just waiting for you to get to work.

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