Do you over-furnish rooms?

over-furnished rooms


I always have a fall back book lying around the house. You know what I mean.  A book I pick up from time to time and read a page or two.  I make no attempt to finish such a book because the pleasure comes from stringing it out as long as possible.

One of those books for me is Savage Art, a biography of the great pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson by Robert Polito.

Yesterday I came to a section that described Thompson’s brief foray into teaching when he received an invitation to act as a fill-in professor of writing at the University of Southern California.  Polito chronicles this event with the words of one of Thompson’s students who said the writer was fond of criticizing ‘over-furnished rooms,’ an expression he stole/borrowed from Willa Cather.

In The Novel Demeuble Cather railed against writing that found it necessary to catalog a great number of material objects. As she put it, “The novel for a long time has been over-furnished.” Then she went on to say, “Whatever is felt on the page without being specifically named there–that, one might say is created.” She urged writers to “present their scene by suggestion rather than enumeration.”

Sounds easy.

It’s not.

For me one of the greatest challenges of writing is to find the balance between what to describe in a scene and what to leave to the reader’s imagination. Of course the difficulty with imagination is controlling it so that when the reader gives it flight, she flies toward the thrust of the book, not into the nameless clouds in a vacuous sky.

Or to use a musical analogy, the author should be like a guitar player whose art comes not from his ability to play thousands of notes per minute, but from knowing which notes not to play.

In a sense, dense description is the easiest, and most boring, form of prose. Description for description’s sake is like looking at a draftsman’s rendition of a floor plan rather than taking a walk through the finished room.

I said finished, not furnished.

So when you write, do you stuff your rooms with every piece of furniture you can describe, or do you leave it spare and rely on action to make the room come to life?

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