Word whittling

Wrote the letter (it’s a story, really) in one intense day…from 10am through to now (2:30am, March the 1st), from a handwritten rough draft of 3,700 words—whittled and shaved and whittled some more—down to 1,200…hopefully without losing its flavour or story.

It’s pretty good. I know it is. With the kind of knowing that lives wherever my meagre understanding of this craft lives. This knowledge is so elusive that, when it’s absent, you worry that you’ve made it up. But, when it surfaces, it’s so satisfying. That moment when you recognize that what you have done will generate sparks, if only for a few minutes.

I gave it everything I dared, wrote it all down, and then went back over it with a scalpel, and took two-thirds of it out again. I have done the best I can do. Tonight, that is. I can only speak for tonight!

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I’m allowing myself to gloat a little, now, because I might look at it tomorrow , think, “Oh, it’s crap,” and start all over again. Ah, the writing life…

I’ll bet I can excise another 200 words, tomorrow, if I put my mind to it. That’s still too many words for an A4 sheet of paper. I’ll have to add a second sheet to February’s letter.

It’s so grueling to try and hack a story down to 600 words, and yet still do it justice, give it some depth. There’s a very real danger of trivializing the subject matter. This is probably why I only post photos on twitter!

Of course, something very, very short, the tiniest bite of writing, can hold universes. Haiku, for example. Or W.S. Merwin’s translation of delightful Asian aphorisms, East Window:

Sudden
like a spear from a window

Long way to the law.

Fist right here.

Spits straight up.
Learns something.

Sardine threatens.
Who knows it?

You’ve got an axe but you can’t use it
the other one’s got a needle
but he can

I bought East Window on a whim, never guessing what it would come to mean to me. Every time I pick it up, I discover something I hadn’t noticed before. It makes me laugh, or gasp, or sigh in pleasure, without fail, every single time. The wisdom in it is so tight, so sharp, so loaded, so wry, so observant. Today it is, to my wonderment, one of my favorite books of all time. One that I would grab, at the last moment, from a burning house…or choose to have (along with Coleman Barks’ Essential Rumi and Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy) on a desert island, or take with me on a long journey on foot around the world. Seriously. I know, I was surprised, too. But it does that; each short poem is a little bronze key that unlocks a door you didn’t know existed in your head, and through that door floods the foolishness and the cleverness of humankind.

Or, for a more contemporary example, the entries submitted to the website 8WordStory :

“From 30 October to 24 November 2017, Queensland Writers Centre is giving you the opportunity to publish your work and be seen by up to 300,000 people across South East Queensland.
There’s just one catch.
You can use only eight words.”

My favorite entry (after scrolling through hundreds of 8-word stories) is still Kat Cope’s.

“(Everyone ready?)
SURPRISE!!…..no,
it’s today — isn’t it?”

It’s a magic story. In one deft move it conjures balloons, an explosion of confetti, a bleating of party horns, a cake held aloft, a pile of presents, bright lights, a roomful of friends, a disappointed person trying to be grateful, a swooping descent from being excited and proud…to the sickening feeling in your gut that you’ve really, really messed up on this once-in-a-year opportunity. A tragedy. A comedy. A universe in a grain of sand. A master stroke.

Good night. Good morning.

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6 thoughts on “Word whittling

  1. Nat, such a thoughtful, informative piece…I have picked up on so many good books from reading your recommendations….the Edge of the World, and Jaguars and Electric Eels to name a couple. And of course you have given me insights in all your posts to think about for the days to come. Your essay reminded me to cut out the “twigs” in whatever “tree” I am working on…painting or writing. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s hard work, but satisfying. I did rewrite the whole letter (just about) the next day. Just goes to show that the only way to what you really want to say is through all the crap, first! Craft is one thing, but the spirit of any piece doesn’t reveal itself until the end. I found my first draft technically good, but realised the mood was all wrong. It’s easy to be precious about something you’ve worked so hard on, but I couldn’t live with myself if I let it pass. So I threw it all out & started from the beginning.

      Like

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