Saturday, January 28, 2012

The right equipment

As some who've read this blog may know, I'm a serious nordic skier. One might be tempted to say fanatical. It's no surprise; I'm as close to biologically predetermined for it as can be imagined: I'm tall and most of my height is legs, I'm what may generously be called gangly, and I'm a distance runner who trains at at least 5200 feet every day, so I have strong legs and good lung capacity and lots of stamina. I'm sorta built for it. And if I may say so, I'm very very good.

I'm also frugal, of that "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" philosophy, and so I have for many years been using equipment I got a long time ago. I have been using the same classic skis, boots, bindings, etc., for maybe 25 years. My skate equipment is likewise over 20 years old. It has all served me very well.

Last year, I bought myself new skate skis. Last week, I splurged on new boots to go with them. And yesterday, I went and test-drove the whole kit.

The difference was jaw-dropping. Like the difference between upgrading from bald tires to snow tires. My high-performance, competition-grade new stuff is so technologically advanced over my old equipment that it improved me as a skier instantly. Whatever plateau I had reached previously got shattered. The new equipment is so responsive that I was able to ski more efficiently, which means that the energy I might have once expended on, say, turning, is now free to be used toward greater speed.

This is the point I've been trying to make to my students about the importance of having a lucid prose style. It's not merely a matter of my finicky readerly taste; it's that if your prose is laboring to be understood at the level of the sentence, then you can just do so much less at the level of your argument. Prose is a site of ideational development, and if the prose is resistant, unclear, convoluted, obstructive, then the ideas get clogged in both the writing and the reading of them. Working on developing a good prose style is the argumentative equivalent of investing in new skis: it makes you a more efficient thinker, which frees you up to think more complexly, more subtly.

Having cool ideas is like my being physiologically suited to XCskiing: it's a good start. But raw biology can only go so far and so fast; the right equipment magnifies the innate, frees up the natural to become its best.


Bardiac said...

Congrats! I'm a lousy skier, but it's still WAY fun!

Flavia said...

I LOVE this metaphor. I may steal it for use in my own classes.

I'd only add that the reverse is true, too: all the equipment (or prose style) in the world won't help if you don't have the skills (or sufficiently good ideas) to put them to proper use. And indeed, one can fetishize the equipment to the point that one isn't training hard enough, for fear of ruining it.

(That, at any rate, was true of much of my own writing in college: I coasted on style for far too long, and was really resistant to the fact that sometimes my prose had to get uglier--in order to fit in a new idea or necessary complication--before it could get prettier again.)

Lisa B. said...

Beautiful--I did not expect that "this is that" move you made, and it works fantastically well. And here I was, all super happy to think of you having speedy new skis!

Joe. said...

Writing about writing is never easy, but you did a great job at saying what all my English teachers tried and failed to tell me. It's like the grammar and prose are the bare walls of a room, and the ideas are all the decorations, but you can't decorate a wall-less room.

Blue Cheese said...

So, what does it mean that I'm a snow-shoer? Plodding prose? :)

Kristen said...

Zip zip zip zoooooooom!

Doctor Cleveland said...

This is absolutely great. I may also steal it. Also, a nice demonstration of what it discusses.

To pick up Flavia's reversal of the metaphor:

As a novice skier (who alas stayed a novice), I quickly learned to be wary of people on the slopes who were wearing brand-new shiny outfits with gorgeous, looks-like-it's-never-been-used equipment. Because often it hadn't been used, and they bought it yesterday, and the wearers were even more novice-y than I, but much more dangerously confident. Those were the people to steer clear of.

Great prose with underdeveloped thinking is kind of like that. Looks great, can move glamorously fast (in what is often just an elegant version of falling), but apt to lose balance at any moment, and all too likely to crash into something or someone.

(My captcha: "bathexa," as close to apres-ski bathos as I could hope.)

Renaissance Girl said...

Flav and Dr. C: You're right, of course, and I spend just as much time trying to alert the stylistically smooth writer that in some ways such prosodic elegance throws into relief the lack of content if the writer is lucky enough to have a reader who presses against hir sentences. What I usually say is some version of this: "Your sentences look very much like sentences that have something to say, but they collapse under the slightest interpretive pressure."

You're also right about the shiny ski people. You want to get on the other side of the snow from them, or pack a first aid kit, because someone's bound to get hurt.