Friday, May 20, 2005

The Power of Minimalism

I listened this morning to a conversation between Ken Wilber and Rick Rubin. Rubin is a very successful music producer who has worked with artists ranging from Nine Inch Nails to Public Enemy to Johnny Cash. He says that many producers are solely concerned with making money, but that he has always put quality first. He wants to bring out the essence of the best of what a talented artist or group has to offer, and he believes that the best way to do this is generally to strip their songs to their barest elements. If this unadorned essence has the power to move people emotionally the way the best music does better than almost anything, then he and the artists collaborate to make the song as good as possible. If it doesn’t, then throw it out. He says that this is an unusual approach because it takes so much more time and effort to pare greatness down to its vital core than it does to throw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into a mediocre song to blanket its shortcomings under a diverting canopy of pleasing sound. Wilber says that the same applies to writing a book, and he paraphrases Karl Marx who said something like, “I don’t have the time to write a short book.” But Wilber and Rubin agree that taking the time to slice away the flab and say what one has to say with compact precision and power is time well spent.

I agree with this in principle, but it is so, so difficult for me to write as concisely as I would like. I know that I often use too many words big and small to get to my point and that I’ve probably turned off a lot of prospective readers by doing it. But it takes so much time and effort to figure out precisely what I want to say and then strip away the excess verbiage until only the raw essence remains. And when I’ve struggled and strained to the point where I think I’ve done this, my prose sometimes seems colorless, rigid, indifferent, and even simpleminded. Yet, something tells me that I need to keep trying, that if I can’t make my point, the whole point, and nothing but the point with unvarnished clarity and concision, I don’t really have a worthwhile point to make, and if I don’t have a worthwhile point to make, why write at all?

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