The Distillation of Words.

Believe it or not, simplifying or distillation is what separates an artist from an amateur. As jazz legend, Miles Davis, once said, “Never give them everything.”

Image for post
Image for post
Courtesy of YouTube

Editing stops me from being preposterously stupid.” Stephen Hopkins

I can’t tell you how many words I’ve written during my career. What does 45 years add up to? I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t care.

People keep asking, “How many words do you write each day?” It’s like asking how many times you’ve been kissed. The number means nothing. Some kisses are good, some are bad, some are nothing more than a touching of lips. We only remember the kiss that stays in our minds. The same applies to words.

Miles Davis once told a young trumpet player, “It isn’t what you play, it’s what you leave out.”

If people don’t remember our words, we’ve written too much. Hemingway said, “Murder your darlings.” He was talking about distillation. From the many, we value the few.

“Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Adrianople across the mud flats. The carts were jammed for thirty miles along the Karagatch road. Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud. No end and no beginning.”

Miles Davis once told a young trumpet player, “It isn’t what you play, it’s what you leave out.” It’s the pause that sticks in people’s minds, the distance between notes. Silence can say many things.

Have you ever been out in the country at night? You see thousands of stars and say, “Why don’t I see these in the city?” You listen to the silence, or the sound of chirping, the breeze. You say, “Why don’t I hear this in the city?”

You don’t because of noise, vibration, light reflection. This is the clutter of civilization. They work their way into everything in our lives, our writing, our music, the shows we watch on television.

Davis — and all great jazz players — believed in the importance of notes. He never gave everything in a performance. Notes were too important. What we got was a distillation of years, what Davis decided we needed to hear.

Rushdie once said in a speech that a friend convinced him to go into advertising because it “was easy.” He soon discovered it wasn’t.

To him, the rest was immaterial, nothing but noise, vibration and lights. Only years of playing taught Davis what to leave out. How many notes? Millions? Billions? The number isn’t important. What he left out is all that matters.

I spent years distilling words for a living. I’d take stacks of clinicals, turning them into a few hundred words. It was brevity for money. Along the way, I learned what many writers — including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Salman Rushdie — realized about copywriting: it’s forced economy.

Rushdie once said in a speech that a friend convinced him to go into advertising because it “was easy.” He soon discovered it wasn’t. When it’s a job with deadlines, with a client expecting something yesterday, words don’t come as fast as you’d like. But you learn what it means to write, to reduce words, to find clarity in simplicity, and to know which words sell.

When Raymond Carver presented his manuscript “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” to his editor, Gordon Lish, Lish reduced it by forty percent and rewrote six of the endings.

“I wrote for Chevrolet,” Elmore Leonard once said. “Advertising’s hard because you’re confined to such a small space. It’s nothing like novel writing. There you can let your mind wander and words flow. Advertising is sticking to script. You can’t go off in different directions. You have to be very clear.”

When Raymond Carver presented his manuscript “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” to his editor, Gordon Lish, Lish reduced it by forty percent and rewrote six of the endings. Carver went along and the book was — and is — a masterpiece.

Years later, under the influence of friends and other authors, Carver sent Lish a letter: “I have always respected your opinion, but please, please don’t edit my work so much.” Lish sent back his reply: “So be it.”

It ended their relationship. While Carver would go on to create some superior stories, like “Where I’m Calling From,” he also published a collection of early ones in their original form before Lish edited. For the most part, they’re too explanatory, too rambling. He’d put back what he should have left out.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” will always be Carver’s definitive work in my mind. To compare it to jazz, it had the space, the singularity of thought that spoke millions of things.

“Gazebo” alone says more in its six pages than entire novels.

“That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.”

Someone once described Charles Bukowski’s manuscripts as “typewriter keys practically going through the page.” He wasn’t writing to edit. His words were already edited in his mind. If there’s economy, it’s a writer trained in his own form of reduction, a voice saying, “I’ll give you what I want to give you.”

“Robert’s first desire — when he began thinking of such things — was to sneak into the Wax Museum some night and make love to the wax ladies. However, that seemed too dangerous. He limited himself to making love to statues and mannequins in his sex fantasies and lived in his fantasy world.”

Now, before you say, all you’ve given me are men writing like men. What about women? Haven’t they given us what you call “distillation of words”?

Like everything she wrote, Mary Wells Lawrence never left a word out of place or a thought too loosely described.

This is from Mary Wells Lawrence, one of the greatest copywriters of her generation. Besides forming Wells, Rich and Greene, and creating the famous “I [love] New York” campaign, she wrote an autobiography that shows she’s still capable — at 83, no less — of clear, picturesque writing that respects the word and the “silences.”

“I was working at McCann-Erickson for the money, for the little black dresses that showed off my Norwegian legs, for my baby daughter’s smocked dresses from Saks, and for an apartment larger than I could afford, but then I met Bill Bernbach, and he made a serious woman out of me.”

Like everything she wrote, Mary Wells Lawrence never left a word out of place or a thought too loosely described. To me, she’s the epitome of the term “I meant every word I said.”

No writer of this or any other generation could champion the thoughts of so many in such a terse remembrance of a man they called “Tricky Dicky.”

I’ll leave you with my favourite eulogy, a piece Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone on the death of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. No writer of this or any other generation could champion the thoughts of so many into such a terse remembrance of a man they called “Tricky Dicky.”

“Richard Nixon is gone now, and I’m the poorer for it. He was the real thing — a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout.”

Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.

Written by

I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store