Though my heart leaps up when I hear the gorgeous music of 17th-century prose (Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Jeremy Taylor), such organ-concert grandeur is simply beyond me. If only I had a flair for striking similes and metaphors! Alas, nothing ever reminds me of anything else. Equally elusive are the twists and turns of intricately layered, Ciceronian syntax: I have enough trouble holding a thought in my head for more than a couple of lines, let alone carrying it through serpentine clause after clause. I do sometimes console myself by remembering Isaac Babel’s famous dictum: “There is no iron that can pierce the human heart with such stupefying effect as a period placed at just the right moment.”

Because of journalism’s paramount need for clarity and objectivity, working at The Washington Post only reinforced the natural austerity of my prose. An old copy editor I knew used to say, when striking out a needless epithet or intensifier, “No vivid writing, please.” Beauty, I learned, grows out of nouns and verbs, and personal style derives from close attention to diction and sentence rhythm. When Yeats decided that his poems had become too ornamented and flowery, he took to sleeping on a board. Before long, he’d put the Celtic Twilight far behind and was producing such shockingly blunt lines as “Nymphs and satyrs copulate in the foam.”