The Art of Deletion: Cleaning the Actual Attic

Perhaps you know that special suffocating effect of 763 toys?

(By the way, this is Part 2 of a brief series called The Art of Deletionediting a piece of writing down to its essential core.)

It doesn’t matter how much you vow to raise your child in spacious, creative simplicity. Well meaning relatives cannot allow it. The family is big and the love is big and the act of buying toys fires off Roman candles in their pleasure receptors. So they surprise your child (and you! Surprise!) with these bright boxes of plaything-parts.

These boxes are Trojan horses.

For 17 minutes they amuse your kid. And then, in the  of night, all the little pieces swarm out and conquer your house like so many guerrilla fighters; and one day you purge your attic, closets, and cubbies, and you find this.

attic_purge

(This was only three battalions of the army, by the way. There was more.)

But there’s so much to learn about writing and revision from a good attic purge.

Generating a piece of writing

In the first-draft stage of an essay, I think it is actually good for one’s brain to be an over-excited grandmother. Everything gets pulled off the shelf and into the shopping cart. Why not? Grandma has a beautiful heart; this is a generous genesis.  In my writing mind, an essay on the 17th century ballad character Mad Maudlin must have whole pages on fishnet stockings, Seattle, the smoky origins of traditional folk music, imaginary brew pubs, archival miscellany, coming-of-age experiences, and a dozen other shiny objects on this marvel of a planet. I love Mad Maudlin. She needs all these things.

But after I finish my spree and bring it all home—and after some time has passed—I need to sort out the things that are just shiny from the things I actually do need. Because every kid should have some toys. But the sheer volume of a collection like the one pictured above makes it hard to see what’s really there.

Similarly, I suspect that most essays and stories have an essential core. The piece is about lots of things, yes,
but it’s especially about one thing.

Handy example: Just yesterday I read this wonderful story, “Consider this Case,” about a fetal surgeon and his dying father. The story is a quiet parade of rich material:

  • a gay character who flouts flat stereotypes with his lack of style;
  • a Southern decorator with tales of furnishing the White House;
  • fetal surgery on triplets;
  • romantic sparks at a political fundraiser.

Every one of these things is fascinating in itself, but by the end of the story you also see that none of it is just curious detritus there for its own sake. It all points, ultimately, to one central idea: the difficulty of seeing—and, for the protagonist, seeing one thing in particular. (Just read it. You’ll be glad.)

What to throw out?

I imagine that in Yancy’s first draft, there was some extra stuff laying around that didn’t make the cut. A story with this kind of careful craftsmanship doesn’t usually appear ex nihilo in its perfect final form. So when Yancy was editing her story, how did she decide what to throw out? How does anyone decide?

Writers try to explain this winnowing in all sorts of ways. The novelist Elizabeth Bowen, in her Notes on Writing a Novel, says that you jettison everything in a story that doesn’t serve the Plot, which she designates “the Essential. The Pre-essential.” Then she directs our attention beyond Plot to an even higher mission: ”Plot must further the novel towards its object. What object? The non-poetic statement of a poetic truth.”

All that is probably true, but it is also rather fancypants and abstract, so I will just to go back to my attic.

As I said, we didn’t chuck all our kids’ toys, but we needed to know two things before we could decide what to throw out:

1) how much space we had and

2) what had to be kept.

In our literal attic, we knew the answer to #1, because we knew how many toy bins we had in our house. This kind of limit provokes a more rigorous culling. This is why I love word counts and page limits when I’m revising. They easily resolve question #1 and force me to be a sharper editor: “This word is just a flourish; this sentence is redundant; the reader can intuit this idea without me explaining it.” If I’m writing without a word count, I have to work it out intuitively: How much space does this particular story need to be told? (It is usually fewer pages than I think.)

#2, What has to be kept?, is a harder question than #1. But once you know what to keep, it is so much easier to know what to throw out.

What to keep?

It depends what the story wants to be (and I will tackle that more in a post called Listening to a Thing), so let’s get practical in the attic again. If my husband Rob and I asked our five-year-0ld “What toys are essential? What do we have to keep?” the answer would’ve been “everything,” so we needed criteria. What was the one thing, the one purpose, all these toys were meant to serve?

In this instance, the answer was “occupy the children imaginatively for the longest time possible without plopping them in front of a screen,” which led us to toss out anything broken, outgrown, excessively electronic, or proven to bore them. All of which seems obvious. But if you don’t clarify that purpose, you end up hanging onto things that have alleged sentimental value, or are sort of cute,  or were just given to us recently, or “well, this looks like something they’d play with”—even if these toys don’t serve the one thing.

Here’s an even clearer example, I think.

Imagine that we were taking a trip somewhere and we had to choose only the toys that would go on that trip with us. We wouldn’t be able to select the right toys until we knew what the trip was. Car, airplane, train? Cranky relative’s house? Beach? One day or one week? Determining the one thing can be difficult, but once you do, the deletion becomes much easier. If you know you’re going to the cranky relative’s house by train for a week, this is your one purpose; therefore, you will probably choose a bunch of compact toys (maximizing space) that don’t make loud annoying noises (cranky relative) and don’t have a lot of stray pieces (because they would inevitably get lost in transit). This one thing, this one purpose, shows you what to keep, and it’s much easier to leave the rest behind. And if your trip was a single day at the beach, it would lead to a totally different selection. Knowing your one thing makes the keep/toss choice much clearer. 

Because Yancy’s story is about not seeing something (and ultimately seeing it), the details she chooses point toward the idea of not-seeing and the unseen thing itself. Look at this scene where the character is performing a particularly difficult fetal surgery:

 it is cloudy in the uterus, the turbid amniotic fluid like watery milk speckled with mucus. Just finding all the connections takes him twenty minutes. He can often finish a surgery in that amount of time…. It feels like he is walking down a dark hall, brushing cobwebs out of his face all the way.

This is speculation again, but I imagine that once Yancy did her first draft (perhaps a few drafts?), and knew what her story was about—what her one thing was—it was easier to choose what kind of surgery experience she’d give her character. Or maybe the details of this scene—the milky fluid, the cobweb feeling—were intuitive, and only later did they give her a clue to her one thing.

Letting stuff go

At least in real life, and until a kid is of a certain reasonable age, you have to do all this choosing and rejecting when he’s not looking, because he thinks he needs everything. He doesn’t, but he thinks he does. As of this writing, my five-year-old doesn’t miss his Ninja Turtle Hide-Out and he probably never will—unless he realizes we threw it out. This Ninja Turtle thingy is not a valuable case of vintage baseball cards or beloved rabbit; it was a flimsy and perpetually broken toy that kept his attention for about five minutes at a time. It’s not the toy itself he wants; it’s the security of keeping everything.  

But I get it. I’m not so different—the alleged grown-up writing an essay or story. So, next time: Time and Detachment.

P.S.

Do not underestimate the creative benefits of literally cleaning out a physical attic (and I mean this in the traditional literal sense of “literal”). Purging all these toys somehow freed up space in my brain. I don’t know why this is so, but I swear it is.

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