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In his interview with The Paris Review, James Baldwin in answer to the question "As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?", says:

You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

The idiom struck me as odd because I'd never come across any such idiom before. This prompted a quick search on the Internet but to no avail.

So what was Baldwin's idea behind the metaphor? I'm guessing he was hinting at some sort of "Occam's razor" applied to writing, as it were— that is, writing should be kept as simple as possible and stripped of any fripperies, like a bone stripped of all flesh. I'm not sure though, and hence the question. But even if that be the case, isn't it a rather poor metaphor considering "stripping a bone clean of its meat" essentially doesn't leave much to savour?

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    Not a common metaphor but a personal usage. Make your writings simple, clean them from unnecessary structures etc., as a dog cleans a bone from its meat. – user 66974 Mar 31 at 14:58
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    "stripped to the bone" is a well-known idiom forum.wordreference.com/threads/stripped-to-the-bone.2017781 – Stuart F Mar 31 at 16:50
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    Probably lots of people besides OP find this particular metaphoric usage confusing, which is why it doesn't have much currency. But it's been around since at least 1816 (it's not a "one-off, personal" usage from Baldwin). – FumbleFingers Mar 31 at 17:36
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    I'm pretty sure that Baldwin, one of America's greatest prose writers, knew what he was doing with the metaphor, which is probably intended to evoke images of our last remains, memento moris, bones ripped out of flesh, the Biblical valley of the bones, the Last Judgment, etc. Good prose is not necessarily nice or picturesque or good for soup-making, especially when you're writing about what Baldwin did (racism, forbidden sex, etc). – Stuart F Mar 31 at 22:12
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Baldwin said this in 1984 in an interview with "The Paris Revue"

INTERVIEWER

As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?

BALDWIN

You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

Given the context, I am not going to criticise him - I think he had it right. The bone is the bone and nothing more - it is stripped of everything else, save for its strength.

A search for "as clean as a bone" also brings up a song and a book of that title.

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  • Thank you, @Greybeard! :) – user405662 Mar 31 at 17:03

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