The Art of Deletion

The Art of Deletion

Our stories came back with Xs slashing out entire pages. The better pages were stripped of paragraphs. A line through a sentence began to seem mild.


This was when I studied with a particularly vigorous writer/editor in the Bennington Writing Seminars. I requested him as a teacher, in part, because I wondered if I was up for it. I was pretty convinced that he would chew up my stories and spit out the bones. He seemed so brilliantly wry and sarcastic, and I thought of my stories as whimsical and earnest. I just wanted to see what would happen.

Shocked, I was, when he returned my collection of stories and essays to me and said “I love these.” I share this not out of vanity (I hope), but to let the record show his kindness. And still I earned my share of tart remarks.  Once in a story I wrote:

“Dread pooled in my gut, like the engine fluid leaking out under the car.”

He wrote this comment beside it:

“Dread pools in my gut when I read this metaphor.”

Never since have I allowed such a metaphor to live.

As everybody’s did, my stories got the benevolent slasher treatment. And these days–a few years out of grad school, and still writing–I find myself regularly at my desk thinking “Thank God for that guy.” He was thoughtful and sharp and full of good advice, but it’s his slasher skills that I use the most.

Just last week, in fact, I used them on a madwoman.

The madwoman in the archives

Mad Maudlin was a character in a seventeenth-century ballad, and one of those pieces I wrote back in grad school was a 37-page monster essay about her. Wait–not just about Mad Maudlin. Also about

  • fear and desire,
  • fishnet stockings and combat boots,
  • coming of age,
  • sojourns to Seattle, Vermont, and hell (specifically, Pluto’s kitchen),
  • family trees dotted with crazies,
  • hunting obscure history in archives,
  • complicated relationships with mentors we fiercely love,
  • eating ten whales and pummeling the Man in the Moon to powder,
  • traditional folk music, and
  • what I can and can’t do with a viola.


This whale of a thing sat in my archives until a friend sent me a link to the Iron Horse Review, which was calling for submissions on the theme of #WriteLikeAGirl–females who swing punches, travel boldly, and knock it out of the park. “Sounds like something you’d like,” wrote my friend. I had to admit it did, but I couldn’t remember if I had anything that exactly fit the bill–anything within the word limit, at least. I sifted through my files and found the old Mad Maudlin essay.

When you’re a writer mothering tiny children, you have to be efficient. I had about three or four hours’ worth of childcare to whip Mad Maudlin into shape. By the end of that time, I’d hacked off twenty pages, restructured it, crafted a new through line, and smoothed out the transitions with some brisk new paragraphs. I squeaked in the submission a few hours before the deadline.

Victories come so seldom! I am still basking, a little, in that post-orgasmic essay-completion afterglow. And that editing sprint got me thinking about the art of deletion in writing (and maybe in life?). So many writers have treated this subject, but when you wrestle through something yourself, you get to possess it in a new way. I’m thinking it might be useful (for me, if no one else) to figure out the how: the tools I use when carving an essay or story down to its essential core. Because I do have a lot of monster stories and essays in my archives.

In my next few posts, I’m going to rummage around in the attic and drag out what thoughts I can. When I sort through it all, I expect I’ll probably find something about

Detachment and Time

Listening to a Thing

Actually Cleaning the Attic

–and perhaps more.

[unnecessary closing paragraph deleted]


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