Last night I read the New Yorker profile of Matthew and Michael Dickman, poets from Portland, Oregon who happen to be identical twins. (Here's the abstract). In their work, they have very different voices, but there's a strange sort of twin telepathy that seems to exist within it. They also edit each other's work, providing insight and feedback to each other about works in progress. During one editing session, one of the Dickmans recalls an interview with former American poet laureate Mark Strand in which Strand cautions against relying on "clusters of words" that pop into your head … This sounded to me like a good rule of thumb for writing. (It also added fuel to the fire of my dislike of Twitter and Twitter-like tools that encourage people to offer half-cocked, cliche-ridden mini-opinions about everything.) I plundered the Internet in search of the interview. Turns out that he was referring to a 2003 piece in Post Road Magazine. It was conducted by writer Michael O'Keefe. The relevant bit is the last passage from Strand, but the context is helpful:
Mark Strand: Nobody wants to arrive because that's the end. One wants to have openings constantly before him so there are places to go.Michael O'Keefe: Do you believe that sometimes words can get in the way when you write?MS: Words do get in the way when you have heard them used in a particular manner before. When you write all you've got are words but they both get in the way and serve as a salvation.MO: Do you avoid using any kind of combinations of words that you could remember easily?MS: Yeah, I mistrust them because it means that they existed in that way before. The idea is to use a modifier-noun combination that may never have been used before. Otherwise you may be just quoting others or quoting yourself. The excitement comes when you have done something that was unthinkable before.
Amen, brother. Mistrust ease. Seek the unthinkable.In my digging, I also found some excellent Strand resources, including a nice interview in a 1975 issue of Ploughshares and a very helpful page at the Library of Congress that eventually led to my discovery of the above interview.