Form vs Content

In my discussion of writing for Hollywood, I mentioned that I focused on content—in other words, the meaning of the work rather than how it’s expressed. This may be a perilous approach, however—I learned while living in Japan that form may be as important as content, and in many cases, form is content. Let me relate a little story to better explain what I mean.

My first months in Tokyo, I was living in a “foreigners’ house”—travelers staying there for varying lengths of time paid 38,000 yen a month, while Japanese (comprising about half the residents) paid 75,000 yen a month—for the privilege of hobnobbing with these peculiar strangers and practicing English. One Japanese woman there taught me how to cook something called okonomiyaki, which is a savory pancake containing shredded cabbage, green onions, pork strips and a few other items, topped with a semisweet brown sauce and fish flakes. “What does okonomiyaki mean?” I asked her. She said it was “as you like it” in Japanese. A couple days later I was in the kitchen, cooking it again. A Japanese guy was watching me with consummate interest, and when I opened a can of clams and put them in, he was aghast. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Making okonomiyaki,” I answered; “it means ‘as you like it,’ so I’m putting in what I like.” “But that’s not how you make it!” he sputtered.

Talk about a clash of cultures! To him, making a dish called “as you like it” meant following a more or less prescribed recipe, whereas I fully intended to put in whatever I liked. Neither of us understood the other’s eccentric interpretation. This was merely the first of many lessons where I learned the importance of form in Japan. The meaning of so many actions comes through the way they’re done. I could make the best okonomiyaki my Japanese acquaintance ever ate but to him it wouldn’t be okonomiyaki. It would be that crazy foreigner’s bastardization of okonomiyaki— a completely different dish!

This brings me to my point. I focus so much on content in my writing, letting the form (sentence structure, vocabulary, pace, use of humor, metaphor, etc) more or less automatically serve as the vehicle to carry that content. Only during the editing do I start to pay more attention to the form in order to “polish it.” But my primary concern is what I’m saying. The ethical philosophy. The meaning. Suggestions for a better future, not how I word those suggestions. But think of the old saw: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Maybe I’ve been remiss in not paying more attention to the form of the writing—making it cleverer, faster-paced, funnier, more entertaining. But it always seemed to me that these are things of the craftsman—the popular writer, the spy novelist, screenwriter, author of romances. Entertainers, then. I’ve never aspired to entertain. Better that I shake people up, provoke them, make them think. Nowadays, is this a dead-end street?

I think of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr in this regard. He said—about thirty years ago—something to the effect that, “If I were starting out today, no one would publish me.” In other words, he knew he wasn’t what you’d call a popular writer, but some publishers in his early days cared as much about books, about ideas, as they did about money—and would take a chance on someone who they thought had something to say. Vonnegut was remarking that those publishers are gone. Few would disagree that they’ve generally been replaced by corporate owners, seemingly concerned only with the bottom line. Maybe one must write slick, compelling prose—regardless of content—to have the slightest chance of being published today. God knows, there’s plenty of trash being published, content-wise, though much of it skillfully written.

In defense of publishing, one might say that people at small presses still care. That’s certainly true, but when such a publisher reads 5,000-10,000 query letters a year and puts out 5-10 books, it’s obvious that the chances of someone actually reading your manuscript are slim to nonexistent.

Let’s get back to my prose. What’s my assessment of it? Good ideas or not, am I just a bad writer? Is that the reason for my lack of publishing success? I think it’s the responsibility of every writer to consider this.

Every time I go back to something I’ve written, I’m actually impressed by the freshness of the writing. It’s smooth; it’s clear; the metaphors are striking; my “take” on the language I think is unique. It’s involving—or perhaps more modestly, it involves me! There are even times when I’m reading along and I say something aloud along the lines of, “That’s incredible!” In other words, I have a pretty high estimation of the work, quite aside from the reverence I feel for the ideas I’m trying to explore. I do have a way with words, if you’ll permit my presumption.

So no, I don’t think the writing’s bad. I don’t consider it great by any means, but it is extremely good. It’s just that don’t focus on that, as if I were creating an “art form.” My strength is more in seeing and I think understanding the aspect of life I’m considering, simplifying it and putting it on the page. How well I put it on the page could be debatable. I will, however, stand up to anyone when it comes to content and I might go so far as to say (and this may cost me credibility) that no one today says what needs to be said—about people, about our culture, about the future—like I do. If there’s such a thing as inspiration, maybe I’m inspired about that.


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