Monday, July 8, 2013

The Other Gettysburg Address

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the other day, I read an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal about the Other Gettysburg Address. It was news to me that President Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg in November 1863. That honor actually belonged to Edward Everett, a man who had been president of Harvard University, a member of the US House of Representatives, a US senator, governor of Massachusetts, US secretary of state, and minister to Great Britain. Everett was considered one of the great orators of the day and was a natural choice for the occasion. He had prepared his remarks with care, and at the ceremony, he spoke for two hours about the meaning of the battle and its place in history. He began with these words:
Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature...
Two hours later, he ended with this:
But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.
Soaring rhetoric, right? But there's a reason no one remembers that carefully crafted and well-delivered speech. Because Everett's elaborate words were immediately overshadowed by the simple eloquence of the speech that followed. In fewer than 280 words, President Lincoln perfectly encapsulated what Everett expended more than 13,000 words trying to say. Or as Mr. Everett himself later put it in a letter to Abraham Lincoln:
I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.
But how does this relate to fiction writing? (Aside from the immutable law that you should never use 13,508 words when 271 will do?) Well, maybe the key is in Everett's assessment of his own writing: the central idea is what matters. If you don't start with a good structure and build from that, no matter how many words you add, the writing will not resonate. In other words, if the emotion in your story does not flow from the characterization and the conflict, it won't matter how many adverbs or exclamation points you add, the story will never be memorable.

So if you find yourself writing about how incredibly happy or filled with ecstatic joy your characters are, take a step back and ask whether you're using elaborate language to try to generate emotion where none exists. And if so, take a tip from Mr. Everett and consider whether that elaborate language makes your writing richer, or whether it just makes it forgettable.

12 comments:

Ashantay said...

This is an excellent reminder that society's expectations and tastes constantly evolve. How many of us would stand and listen to the same person speak for two hours? And after a meandering opening?

One of my college instructors suggested I put "why am I writing this?" at the top of my first page. She said to check back whenever I became stuck. It's helped more times than I can count.

Thanks for the enlightening post!

EditorSusan said...

I had the same thought Ashantay! I really couldn't imagine standing and listening for two-hours to any speech (much less while wearing a corset) no matter how significant it was. But I like your instructor's writing advice--what a great idea!

Ann Yost said...

Excellent points -- so easy to get lost in the words and forget the point. Susan Yates is an editor who can keep a writer on track.

EditorSusan said...

Ah thanks, Ann! You're a sweetie :)

Lynda said...

Sigh...and I'm still working on "over-writing." I think I'll go to my grave and long after I've mouldered into no more than dust, I'll still be plagued by that problem. (Very Big Grin)...

EditorSusan said...

LOL, Linda! Glancing through Mr. Everett's speech reminded me of my school days of padding papers to meet word count. (Although I don't think I ever managed to work in "wheresoever" like he did :)

Liz Flaherty said...

Great post and a great reminder!

EditorSusan said...

Thanks, Liz! Thanks for stopping by :)

brenda said...

I think most writers suffer this disease at some point in their writing career. I know I did. I was in a writing group with a bunch of MFA'ers, all of who wrote lofty literary fiction. I tried, oh how I tried to do the same. The work I spewed out back then wasn't bad it was awful. It was over worked and worse, it wasn't fun to write. It wasn't me. I am not literary. The second I realized this my writing turned the corner.

EditorSusan said...

It's so important to find your own voice, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by, Brenda!

LynnetteAustin said...

And you have stated this all very succintly. President Lincoln would have been proud of you!

EditorSusan said...

Ah, thanks, Lynnette!