Sprezzatura in writing

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

A line [of poetry] will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

William Butler Yeats, Adam’s Curse

I just came across this quote from Yeats in Robert Greene‘s The 48 Laws of Power. More specifically, in Law Number 30, which says (page 245):

Make your accomplishments seem effortless. Your actions must seem natural and executed with ease. All the toil and practice that go into them, and also all the clever tricks, must be concealed. When you act, act effortlessly, as if you could do much more. Avoid the temptation of revealing how hard you work–it only raises questions. Teach no one your tricks or they will be used against you.

Greene takes us through a Japanese tea ceremony, through Houdini’s vanishing acts and other artistic/aesthetic feats that would be ruined if the effort were visible.

The best word to describe the ideal is sprezzatura. Italians are better at it than most. It is “the capacity to make the difficult seem easy” and “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”

It’s why Michelangelo, master of sprezzatura, kept his work-in-progress under wraps and would not allow even the pope to sneak a peek. Would have killed the magic.

Ease = Beauty = Power.

Writers strive for it. I do.

Here, by the way, is a sixteen-minute TED talk on “glamor,” where we discover that they key is…. sprezzatura!

“How” books vs “Why” books

This is apparently a widespread distinction in the book industry, at least in non-fiction. I actually think it’s useful.

My book is definitely a Why book.

I don’t think much of How books. I know that some sell well, just as junk food sells well, but neither genre is good for you. How books are like slot machines: they make a fake promise of sudden insight or wealth to the weak-willed and vulnerable, and then don’t deliver. They can’t deliver. The world is too complex for one How book or even a thousand. The best we can do is to try to understand Why and then use our instinct and experience.

A genre closely related to the How books is the List book (or List magazine-article). The formula is simple: If you have nothing to say, no story to tell, no central insight, just make a list! Ten steps to this, seven habits of that, one hundred answers to this, and so forth. In magazines, the one hundred most powerful women, the fifty richest men, the twenty greatest innovators, etc. It’s a mediocre writer’s dream: You don’t actually have to go out and find a story, you just sit around and rank some celebrities or quirky one-line teasers and let the audience debate.

As with everything, there are exceptions that prove the rule. The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene, is an intelligent book that is also a list and appears to be a How book. But it’s not. It’s really a Why book, cleverly disguised as a List/Why book.

But my basic point stands. Write Why books. Read Why books. That is challenging and rewarding enough for a few lifetimes.

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