In art and design, the word “ornament” is typically used to connote something that has been added to an object merely to decorate that object. The goal of ornament is style or beauty. It has no essential function, nor any real meaning.
Ornament, according to art-world definitions, does not fundamentally change the object it has been attached to. Like a gargoyle added to a wall, the wall will still stand without it. Now technically a gargoyle is a rain spout—it has a purpose—but obviously a rainspout doesn’t need to look like a gargoyle. So, what’s the purpose of the design? Is it just ornament?
I believe if an ornament didn’t alter a person’s experience of the object it was attached to, then we wouldn’t bother to have it. The truth is I love gargoyles and I don’t care that much about walls. I believe gargoyles do change walls and not just by saving them from getting wet. I doubt I’m alone in this.
But what does this mean for creative writing?
Most creative writing textbooks, across genres, repeat conventional wisdom: show don’t tell, kill your darlings, use significant detail, avoid clichés, avoid abstractions, form follows function, etc. All of which is frequently good advice aimed at keeping texts precise and compelling. I’m not against that. But taken further, this advice says: no extraneous details, no scenes that don’t serve the plot, no dialogue that doesn’t develop the character, no tangents, no loose ends, no no no. Which can be translated into no ornament: no gargoyles.
But, as established, I love gargoyles.
Here I want to make the case for (sometimes!) including the ornamental, the “inessential,” in your writing. I want to make the case for (sometimes!) editing by addition rather than subtraction.
What is it we want from literature? Probably some kind of unified experience that is intellectually or emotionally deep. Definitely an experience that gives us satisfaction as we read and soon after we finish. But ironically, the lingering affection I feel for so many texts—the bits and pieces of a text that stay with me—are often what I would call pieces of ornament. The very things that many a workshop, if they had seen this text in draft form, might argue to cut.
I was at an AWP panel once where a writer said, “I love sentences that make me lean forward,” and another writer replied with, “I love sentences that make me lean back.” I’m here to say you don’t have to choose. In a story or poem or essay that makes you lean forward, you can have a moment that makes you lean back. And in a story or poem or essay that makes you lean back, you can have a moment that makes you lean forward. I’d argue, in fact, you probably should.
Many writers hope to craft a final scene or line or sentence or image that makes a reader lean back and sit with the piece for a while. So, I ask you, why does that line or scene or image always have to come at the end? Why can’t writing have a lean back moment in the middle? It can, of course. Suspense writers use such moments as a delaying tactic all the time. But suspense does not have to be their sole function.
Take Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read, a book that is unified by DeLillo’s intelligence and depth of point of view, and to some degree by a protagonist and a plot. DeLillo, perhaps more than any other contemporary novelist, works deftly with set pieces—scenes or sections of the novel that could be lifted out as stand-alone episodes but often aren’t vital to the novel’s central plot. But my favorite DeLillo set pieces are all in White Noise, a novel one could argue is built out of ornament. Take the opening panorama of the day of the station wagons in which parents drop their kids at College-on-the-Hill, where the narrator Jack Gladney is department chair of Hitler Studies; or the classroom scene in which Gladney and his colleague give dueling, interspersed lectures on Hitler and Elvis; or my personal favorite the car ride in which Gladney and his son Heinrich argue about whether or not it’s raining:
“It’s going to rain tonight.”
“It’s raining now,” I said.
“The radio said tonight.”
… “Look at the windshield,” I said, “Is that rain or isn’t it?”
“I’m only telling you what they said.”
“Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean we have to suspend belief in our senses.”
“Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don’t you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems…”
“Is it raining,” I said, “or isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t want to have to say.”
“What if someone held a gun to your head?’”
“Someone. A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to your head and says, ‘Is it raining or isn’t it?’ All you have to do is tell the truth and I’ll put away my gun and take the next flight out of here.”
“What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star? ….”
And so it goes from there.
The thing about this scene is it does not add new information. It does not move the plot forward. It does not develop the characters or reveal anything about the father-son relationship that isn’t revealed in other moments. It is inessential. But to remove it from the novel would be absurd. It’s a brilliant scene. A hilarious gargoyle.
And in truth it serves a purpose, more than one—it gives Heinrich a shining moment—like giving a famous actor a memorable scene to play just so they’ll take a minor role in your movie; but it also raises themes that are central and essential to the novel. What is the truth? What is real? How can we know what is actually happening? This comic episode adds depth. But it’s hard to imagine a writing manual saying it’s okay to include a scene because that scene raises ideas. That’s the very thing many writing manuals warn against. Here is Janet Burroway in her bestselling textbook Writing Fiction: “Theme, it should be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it” which she pairs with “Tell your story in the fewest possible scenes.” The hazard of blanket statements such as these is they can be taken to mean something they didn’t—which is to say cut everything that doesn’t move the plot.
In White Noise, DeLillo’s set pieces become such a pattern that they are a structure unto themselves. It’s pretty easy to argue they are essential because if you remove all of them you have almost no novel left. But a single set piece, in a novel that doesn’t use them otherwise, can also be effective.
Take Kazuo Ishiguro’s tale of a repressed butler The Remains of the Day. The narrator Stevens is asked to explain the birds and the bees to the adult godson of his employer. The godson’s father had been trying to raise the subject for years, failed, passed the duty onto the godfather, who passed it on to his butler. This is a fairly unlikely scenario in an otherwise realist novel, and, like the rain scene in White Noise, it doesn’t reveal anything new about the protagonist or his relationship to his employer. But it’s a wonderful bit of comic relief threaded through one of the most heartrending chapters of the novel. Here is Stevens trying to fulfill his duty:
“Sir David wishes you to know, sir, that ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects.”
I must have paused a little to form my next phrase, for Mr. Cardinal gave a sigh and said, “I’m only too aware of that Stevens. Would you mind coming to the point?”
“You are aware, sir?”
“I’ve thought about virtually nothing else for the past month.”
“Really, sir. In that case, perhaps my message is rather redundant.”
“You can assure Father I’m very well briefed indeed. This attache case—he nudged it with his foot—‘is chock-full of notes on every possible angle one can imagine.”
“Is that so, sir?”
“I really think I’ve thought through every permutation the human mind is capable of. I wish you’d reassure Father of that.”
“I will, sir.”
Of course, they are at cross-purposes, and eventually Stevens realizes he hasn’t fulfilled his obligation at all—he never does, because soon after, his father dies, and the emotional register of the chapter alters completely. The contrast between the emotions that the reader goes through in these juxtaposed scenes give the novel three-dimensionality. Ornament is a great tool for providing contrast. But the episode also makes the godson a much more memorable character than he otherwise would have been. So, when he reenters the novel a hundred pages later for an essential dramatic scene, the reader remembers who he is. The stand-out nature of the comic relief scene allows Ishiguro to avoid having to bring that character back at various moments simply to remind the reader of his existence. So ironically, this bit of ornament serves efficiency.
All of this raises the question of what really is an “essential” scene? I don’t think it is as clear cut as the writing manuals might suggest. As I’ve said, not everything is there to move the action or develop the protagonist.
In shorter works, there is even more pedagogical emphasis on this idea of streamlining, and so short stories, essays, and poems can suffer from it even more than novels.
I think sometimes about the phrase “Kill your darlings.” At its core, “Kill your darlings” is a good reminder that writers can get attached to their own writing in a way that is detrimental. Just because something is “your darling” doesn’t mean it’s actually good. But this phrase is also deployed as an argument for taking good but “inessential” writing out of a text. I’m of the opinion that great writing is so hard to come by that if you write a great line or description or stanza but it isn’t essential—maybe you keep it anyway because it’s great.
Here is the writer Seth Fried defending the murder of darlings:
let’s say you wrote a poem that is supposed to be about a sunset…however, you notice that in the middle of your sunset epic there is an elaborate description of a moon landing that has nothing to do with the rest of the poem. To complicate matters further, the moon landing is your favorite part. It stretches on for pages in hard-won verse that took you several months to tease out of your tortured soul. The way you describe the astronaut’s helmet alone is enough to make a thousand coma victims spring from their hospital beds and all just start grinding on one another. Nevertheless, this is where that old maxim comes into play. You must murder your moon landing description.
Of course, Fried is being sarcastic. Why on earth would you save a sunset poem and kill a moon landing so good it wakes coma patients? Maybe the solution is not to cut but to modify. Maybe you keep your darling and kill your sunset. Or maybe you just fit that darling in a little more smoothly. Take John Cheever’s “The Country Husband,” a short story that contains perhaps my favorite secondary character in all of short-storydom. Meet Gertrude:
Gertrude was a stray. She had been born with a taste for exploration, and she did not have it in her to center her life with her affectionate parents. People who did not know the Flannerys concluded from Gertrude’s behavior that she was the child of a bitterly divided family, where drunken quarrels were the rule. This was not true. The fact that little Gertrude’s clothing was ragged and thin was her own triumph over her mother’s struggle to dress her warmly and neatly. Garrulous, skinny, and unwashed, she drifted from house to house around the Blenhollow neighborhood, forming and breaking alliances based on an attachment to babies, animals, children her own age, adolescents, and sometimes adults. Opening your front door in the morning, you would find Gertrude sitting on your stoop. Going into the bathroom to shave, you would find Gertrude using the toilet. Looking into your son’s crib, you would find it empty, and looking further, you would find that Gertrude had pushed him in his baby carriage into the next village. She was helpful, pervasive, honest, hungry, and loyal. She never went home of her own choice. When the time to go arrived, she was indifferent to all its signs. “Go home, Gertrude,” people could be heard saying in one house or another, night after night. “Go home, Gertrude. It’s time for you to go home now, Gertrude.” “You had better go home and get your supper, Gertrude.” “I told you to go home twenty minutes ago, Gertrude.” “Your mother will be worrying about you, Gertrude.” “Go home, Gertrude, go home.”
Gertrude is not significant to the plot. Her sole purpose is to appear at an inconvenient moment for the protagonist—it is at that inconvenient moment that this paragraph appears. Gertrude does not even need a name. Remove this paragraph and you still understand everything that is happening. But this paragraph is a joy. Pure ornament. Cheever was right to keep it.
On the grand scale, Charles Dickens makes great use of ornamental secondary characters to bring moments of flash to his epic novels. As with DeLillo’s use of set pieces, Dickens’s systematic use of secondary characters is a structure of its own. But a single flat or ornamental character like Gertrude can be equally valuable. Sometimes our darlings deserve to be kept.
In short stories especially, the value of flat characters can be underestimated. If we take E.M. Forster’s definition, a flat character is one that is unchanged over the course of the story. But here is Brandi Reissenweber in the Gotham Writers Workshop textbook Writing Fiction: “Flat characters are not necessarily a bad thing; it’s important to let very small characters be flat. Fleshing them out too much gives them an emotional weight that will mislead the readers or steal focus from the stars of the story.” Here again is that emphasis on streamlining writing in such a way that there are no pauses, no moments of stealing focus, when actually, those disruptions can serve the writer well. Gertrude does steal focus from the main characters of the story—but just for a moment—and then focus is returned.
Or take Z.Z. Packer’s short story “Brownies” about a group of African-American girls on a Girl Scout camping trip. Unquestionably the narrator and the other kids are the stars of the story. And yet Packer spends almost a page describing one of the mother chaperones:
Mrs. Margolin…always strung our troop behind her like a brood of obedient ducklings. Mrs. Margolin even looked like a mother duck—she had hair cropped close to a small ball of a head, almost no neck, and huge, miraculous breasts. She wore enormous belts that looked like the kind that weightlifters wear, except hers would be cheap metallic gold or rabbit fur or covered with gigantic fake sunflowers, and often these belts would become nature lessons in and of themselves. “See,” Mrs. Margolin once said to us, pointing to her belt, “this one’s made entirely from the feathers of baby pigeons.”
Why do we get so much of Mrs. Margolin? Stories centered on kids almost always leave the adults out of the picture. In the course of the plot, she has no real impact. And no overt connection is made between the narrator and this potential adult role model. To some extent, I think this is another version of keeping your darlings. Packer created a great paragraph of description and she kept it. But one additional thing Mrs. Margolin’s presence does is create a more complete picture of black middle-class life—or of life generally. In a publishing world where portraits of black parents are too often those of neglectful or absent parents, the characterization of Mrs. Margolin matters a great deal. She quietly represents the world as it really is. Her inclusion creates plurality—representing more than one black experience.
Well-written, flat, secondary characters can be a good tool for representing the diverse array of people that anybody living in the real world encounters. So many short stories centered on a sole protagonist unintentionally portray that protagonist as living in a segregated, homogenous world—one that, when written by a white author, is often very white. So yeah, small, probably subconscious decisions on craft can perpetuate—or resist—notions of white supremacy. Scholars readily admit this when they look at texts from the past, as is well documented in Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark. But the same readers rarely seem to notice the erasure that happens in contemporary short fiction—and which can be reinforced by the streamlining ethic of the unity effect first argued by Edgar Allen Poe more than a hundred years ago. If short stories or poems or essays want to imply a greater reality, then they need to be cautious about techniques that erase portions of that reality.
This has been argued in a much different context and to a different purpose by Roland Barthes in his essay “The Reality Effect.” Barthes makes the case that Gustave Flaubert in describing a room in his novella A Simple Heart points out details—including the placement of a barometer—that hold no significance whatsoever. The barometer doesn’t impact the narrative, it doesn’t contribute to characterization nor does it contribute aesthetic value. It’s not even ornamental. Why, then, is it there?
If, as is so often argued, every detail in a work of literature has to be significant, then, Barthes asks, what is the significance in this insignificant detail? Why would Flaubert tell us about something so unimportant? Barthes says it’s because insignificant details conjure reality. We live in a world full of insignificant objects. A writer who wants to remind readers of reality will include some. When craft books emphasize the value of significant details, they are making a useful point. But when they overstate the case, something gets lost.
Thus the real craft question becomes: can there be a good insignificant detail vs. a bad insignificant detail?
The answer has to be yes. Anything that can be done, can be done badly. So let’s turn to one of the most detail-laden classics of the short story—“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. It’s easy enough to recognize that the long lists of things carried by the men of Jimmy Cross’s platoon has a cumulative effect. The reader feels the weight of the men’s burden as we read through item after item. The choice of details in many cases are obviously symbolic and therefore significant, such as Kiowa who carries “his grandmother’s distrust of the white man” and “his grandfather’s hatchet.” But details like “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water” seem to be there solely to generate realism. In this case, the bad insignificant detail would presumably be one that didn’t ring true to that realism.
But O’Brien does far more than build reality out of his many insignificant specifics. The dominant voice of the story is built out of the rhythm of his long lists. He uses the opportunity to create style. In this case his ornamental details create a pattern that make the story unforgettable.
There are also other moments where O’Brien, needing to create a certain rhythm to his sentence will add an unnecessary word. Take the left knee of Jimmy Cross’s non-girlfriend Martha. Cross, O’Brien’s protagonist and the platoon’s leader, is distracted by his longing for this girl he has left behind. When he should be focused on the war, he is remembering how he took Martha to a movie and touched her left knee. Left and right are specifics that almost no writer will include—especially when talking about a knee. But here is Jimmy Cross:
“Her legs, he thought, were almost certainly the legs of a virgin, dry and without hair, the left knee cocked carrying her entire weight, which was just over one hundred pounds. Lieutenant Cross remembered touching that left knee. A dark theater, he remembered, and the movie was Bonnie and Clyde, how embarrassing it was, how slow and oppressive. He remembered kissing her good night at the dorm door. Right then, he thought, he should’ve done something brave. He should have carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long.”
Left or right doesn’t matter here. O’Brien could easily have written Lieutenant Cross remembered touching that knee. Or Lieutenant Cross remembered touching that right knee. But we can probably all hear that left knee sounds better. The two four letter single syllable words—the spondee. The contrast of the e in left vs the e in knee. This piece of ornament has a strong aesthetic value. And O’Brien uses Martha’s left knee over and over—three times in that paragraph until the final punch of “he should have carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long.” Note the alliteration of left and long, plus the alliteration of knee and night. The reversal (from l/n to n/l): left knee/night long is especially satisfying.
Sometimes an insignificant detail can be especially useful for sound because a reader won’t over-interpret the repetition (as they might with a significant detail), but they’ll hear it, its sound will generate an emotional response. And the moment that contains that insignificant detail—a poignant and disturbing moment in this story—becomes all the more memorable.
“The Things They Carried” is also a story that makes brilliant use of excess. O’Brien could have made his point, that the men carried a lot, in far fewer words. But ultimately the sheer quantity of the lists matters more than the individual items listed. The excess is the point. Streamlining excess would miss the point.
Alexander Theroux has a sixty-seven page essay listing examples of the color blue—the essay would be good at twenty pages, but at sixty-seven it becomes great. It is memorable for its excess.
This is true, too, in Robin Coste Lewis’s poem “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” which is, in Lewis’s words, “comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” The poem is seventy-three pages long. The excess is the point. The feeling that this poem, this long list of ways that the black female body has been used in art, could have extended infinitely, is the point.
So it is with Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” which is exactly what its title suggests—an episode by episode fictional response to two hundred and seventy-two hours of television. I’m the first person to suggest that in terms of narrative this story is long, at some point almost any reader would flag. It could easily have been trimmed back. But just as some sentences are meant to make you lean back rather than forward, some stories are as well. The excess is the point.
My goal here is not to argue for overly long and boring stories, essays or poems. It is merely to balance what seem to be the dominant voices in pedagogical discussions which focus on getting a reader to move as quickly as possible through what you’ve written. Workshop can sometimes contain a lot of warnings against going too far, but an awful lot of writing doesn’t go far enough.
I once heard the poet Danez Smith say they are wary of poems that convey only a single emotion. I took this to mean that a poem so singular can’t really be speaking the truth. And to my mind this applies to fiction, nonfiction and poetry alike. No matter how short or long the piece, if it narrows its focus too much than surely some necessary context has been eliminated along with a portion of life’s complexity and life’s plurality. Ornament can be a surprisingly good way to remind readers of complexity and plurality. It can add contrast and it can add context.
If we all write only that which seems essential for moving the reader forward as smoothly and quickly as possible, then something gets lost.
Likewise, editors who are in the position of having to read a lot of work as quickly as possible—as tends to be the case in reading submissions—are often at risk of favoring pieces that lack ornament, which reinforces the streamlining tendencies of our current pedagogy. I believe this is a failure and again a loss. The same goes for those of us who serve on admissions committees or as contest judges or as teachers.
The risk is not just work that lacks the surprising, humorous, beautiful, strange moments that can come via ornament, but an actual loss of context that is typically supplied by exposition or detail.
But if you start looking for ornament in your favorite pieces of literature, I am confident you’ll find it, and you’ll find your own uses for it. Because in reality, ornament is not the exception, it’s the rule.