Balancing honesty and artifice

John Casey on that “low vaudeville cunning” necessary in writing.

Once I asked for advice about my idea of adding a fourth act to my memoir. I’d seen how it would break up the long second act, give readers a fresh resting place. And the more I’d lived with the notion the more I’d liked it: adding an act also would emphasize a new phase in the story’s arc. My mentor at the time was really offended, however. The reason was artistic: it’s a perfect three-part book, the thinking went—don’t monkey with organic rightness.

As if writers don’t impose everything anyway, I thought. Paragraphing itself is arbitrary. And line breaks? Some writers throw them in as transitions and emphasis devices even within scenes; others use nary one or only when changing topics.

I thought of this issue today when reading an interview with writer John Casey in The Writer’s Chronicle (September 2012). Interviewer Nancy Bunge asked Casey about the importance of honesty in writing, and Casey responded:

Honesty by itself won’t get you very far. I love the thing Peter Taylor said about why certain poets are lousy prose writers: they just don’t have that low vaudeville cunning. Honesty plus low vaudeville cunning might get you there. But it’s true; if you don’t have honesty then you’re in trouble. If you don’t have low vaudeville cunning, then you’re also in trouble. And the honesty and the low vaudeville cunning are somewhat unteachable.

I need to hear such rough-minded talk when I get too artsy—or forget that everything, even low vaudeville cunning, is an artistic choice. And of course reading Casey’s words I thought of a certain poet, Robert Frost, who said much the same thing in an interview with Richard Poirier for The Paris Review :

The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score. They say not, but you’ve got to score, in all the realms—theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.

I suppose this matter ultimately goes to the writer’s psychology. Or rather more precisely, perhaps, to his temperament. Choices must be authentic but in the end all must made coolly to achieve certain effects. Writing is sentimental when you don’t earn what you ask for. And it’s dull without some humor, some pizzaz. I like Casey’s thoughts on this—

I think that modesty and simplicity might be as important to writing as the enormous vanity that it also presupposes: showing off so that other people will notice you and love you. How could you logically combine those two things? Who demands that they be logical? Maybe they’re braiding around like a maypole: a combination of childlike simplicity and expectation that if one has an idea it will be attended to by an audience, coupled with the big, arrogant, showoff urge: love me, love me, love me.

—because they echo what I know of humans’ evolutionary history. Homo sapiens is only 200,000 years old, a show-off species, vain and chattering and flashing with brilliance, but built atop over six million years of hominids’ quiet existence and group mind. Those twin strains are in us, along with the first layer deep down, the primitive primate and his urge to dominate. Two against one, at best. Politics anyone?

No wonder I get confused about issues like act structure. I want to show off and score! I want to be gentle and organic and authentic. And dammit, sometimes I just want to monkey around with the mess I’ve made.


Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, evolutionary psychology, NOTED, structure, working method

17 responses to “Balancing honesty and artifice

  1. What a very thoughtful (as in both full of thought and caring enough for your audience to ‘fess up) essay. Sometimes, it’s also a matter of being in charge of your voice, and if you’re in charge of your voice, you can do wonders (but I think we’re essentially saying the same thing). Good luck with your memoir. I may not be able to afford it when it first comes out, but I’m sure I’ll read it sooner or later, because I feel like I owe you that much, after reading so many other good bits and pieces on your site.

    • How kind of you. Good point about voice—surely if the reader bonds with your persona, conveyed through voice (syntax, diction, rhythm, revelation), s/he will accept a lot of monkeying around with structure.

  2. Speaking of monkeying around, I can go from Hominid to Homo Sapiens in nothing flat until Hominid pulls me back to earth again. Your image of the “twin strains” within our nature and how they relate to balancing honesty and artifice in writing is useful. Thanks, Richard.

  3. Go ahead and monkey around. Because in truth, it’s craft, not just art. Art doesn’t have rules, isn’t concerned with what people think, wants to offend sometimes, wants to push buttons. Craft, on the other hand, shows that you are the master, that you have control over it, and that you are the one doing the manipulating, not the work itself.

    Work it. I like being manipulated, as long as I don’t know it’s happening. And you’re a craftsman.

    • Thanks, Leslie! It’s interesting to me that I have found only on this issue—act structure—fellow writers and writing advisers stunningly unhelpful. It’s as if this one issue is sacrosanct or holy whereas other issues are mere questions of craft.

  4. Richard, I suspect that you are constitutionally unable to show off. That might occur in a first draft but no longer. Every revision would whittle it away. Honesty, however, would remain. Low vaudeville cunning? That occurs when playfulness and mischief are mixed with thoughtfulness. When it arises, it takes courage to let it stand. Scoring might be fun, when it is born of mischief.

    • Dave, I love your definition of low vaudeville cunning! Yes, I’d be a fool to strike that mix if it arose. I do find it hard to retain show-off stuff. I have a guy’s memoir I’ve skimmed and plan to read that is the antithesis of modesty, and it’s breathtaking in its way—brilliant and defiant, what Annie Dillard calls “fine” writing vs. “plain”; the writer’s clever persona is paramount, the world a backdrop. I can’t sustain it myself. I want to read his to see how it wears across a whole book and whether his performance continues to amaze me or whether it grates.

      • I guess the issue is in part “Do I want to try the socks off the public?’ or “Do I want to understand and express myself?” Yet, as you have noted, honesty alone won’t do it. Maybe the question is, “What in my life experience could possibly be helpful to someone else? Not everyone else, but someONE(s) else.” If I were to write a memoir (I don’t expect to), I’d spend a lot of time asking,”Why do I want to write this?” Then, I suspect, that both content and style would flow out of that.

  5. I have to read your posts at least twice, Richard. You are so cunning. 🙂

    And I think you sneaked in a photo taken on the London Tube this summer. Picadilly Line?

    Don’t monkey around too long on this manuscript. I’m dying to read it. Three acts or four. Doesn’t matter to me.

  6. Richard, A virtuoso performance! That Frost quote is a knockout! Thank you, thank you. -John

    • Thanks, John. It’s interesting that he was commenting on perhaps his most famous quote. The first part of the statement I excerpted goes like this:

      “I’ve often been quoted: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” But another distinction I made is: however sad, no grievance, grief without grievance. How could I, how could anyone have a good time with what cost me too much agony, how could they? What do I want to communicate but what a HELL of a good time I had writing it?”

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  8. 40isthenew13

    This is so insightful. As a former TV reporter attempting literary journalism, it’s abundantly clear that writing for local news allowed other skills to atrophy. (Though it gave me a pretty good handle on vaudeville cunning.) While I can do tight and concise, evoking emotions or strong images of character/time/place is rather beyond my skill set. Learning to cultivate and respect– even to have– a deeply associative and thorough reporting method is a new phase of learning. It’s encouraging to know that more experienced writers also face challenges of content and structure. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’ll be reading often.

    • Thanks so much, Jennifer. You can make the switch! Lots of reading and writing. Oh, and on line classes can help a lot—I recommend Stanford’s online writer’s studio, part of its Continuing Studies program. Really fine teachers, stimulating fellow students.