Cut Away Everything

Blaise Pascal once wrote:
“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

Pascal’s apology is contrary to the common belief that to write longer we need more time. We have all experienced, at some stage in our life like when we had to write essays and compositions for language or literature courses, how hard it was to do so if we had limited number of words. The lesser the number of words required, the harder it became for us to write.

Poetry is perhaps the hardest form of writing, followed by the short-short (story), and then the short story. The writer of the short form of fiction cannot wander like the novelist does. There is no place for him or her to ramble, since every paragraph, every sentence and every word has to serve its purpose of adding to the story, of changing the character, of moving the story forward. The short story, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, must:
“Be brief enough to read at one sitting, and that anything not contributing to the total effect of the story be omitted.”

To illustrate the importance of cutting and editing to the writers of fiction, Barbara Wernecke Durkin told the following story:

A little boy sat on a stump, contemplating the chunk of wood in his hand. “What’re you going to do with that?” his father asked. “Going to carve an elephant,” the boy said, confident. “And how do you know how to go about carving an elephant?” “Easy,” the boy replied. “All I have to do is cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

My favorite illustration however remains E. L. Doctorow’s account of his attempt at writing an absence note for his daughter. When an interviewer for Paris Review interviews asked him:
“You once told me that the most difficult thing for a writer to write was a simple household note to someone coming to collect the laundry, or instructions to a cook.”

E. L. Doctorow’s response was:
“What I was thinking of was a note I had to write to the teacher when one of my children missed a day of school. It was my daughter, Caroline, who was then in the second or third grade. I was having my breakfast one morning when she appeared with her lunch box, her rain slicker, and everything, and she said, “I need an absence note for the teacher and the bus is coming in a few minutes.” She gave me a pad and a pencil; even as a child she was very thoughtful. So I wrote down the date and I started, “Dear Mrs. So and So, my daughter Caroline…” and then I thought, No, that’s not right, obviously it’s my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again. “Yesterday, my child…” No, that wasn’t right either. Too much like a deposition. This went on until I heard a horn blowing outside. The child was in a state of panic. There was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor, and my wife was saying, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this.” She took the pad and pencil and dashed something off. I had been trying to write the perfect absence note. It was a very illuminating experience. Writing is immensely difficult. The short forms especially.”

What do you think? Have you had a similar experience you like to share?


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16 Responses to Cut Away Everything

  1. Enjoyed this post. It made me feel good about being a person who finds it difficult to correspond in 140 characters, symbols and whatnots or less. I love to wander and roll the words around on my paper, following them to see where they lead me and not necessarily always trying to lead them.

    • chichikir says:

      Thank you! I write long articles (blogs). It’s only when I reread them I realize they are too long or there’s too much information, I call it too much meat in them and I start cutting. Sometimes I cut more than half of what I’ve written. But hey I enjoy writing especially rambling 🙂 As long as you love to wander and are happy that’s what matters. Happy writing!

  2. Reblogged this on Talk Art2me and commented:
    When your words are bursting to come out, banging on the walls of your mind and begging to be released even if all at once, causing you to be flustered and frustrated as you try to re-organize them into a 140 character quip that even you can’t readily understand, read this post. Loved it.

  3. Great post. I find when I write, I can end up writing a really lengthy piece without even an attempt at writing long or short. It just happens that it becomes long. So far my blog posts are rather long, though I’ve received feedback that the quality should be the focus rather than a quantity; so I will try to focus on the quality. I would be rather hesitant in writing a quick note like in the example for a note to a child’s teacher, I believe, at least if it was within the last moments before a deadline. If I had the opportunity to ponder it the night before, it would likely be no problem to have it ready the next morning though I have no kids at the time being so I really can’t predict precisely how anything would be as a parent I suppose.

    • chichikir says:

      Thank you! I am a parent and I haven’t had the pleasure or the experience of writing such a note. The school where my children went didn’t accept notes from parents only from doctors. So when I was writing the blog I thought how challenging it would be to write one! I don’t think I would be able to do so in a very short time. 😦

  4. tomorrowtale says:

    Being concise is a talent, it takes time and thought to make sure every word counts. However I’m not sure it’s a talent novelists don’t need. Even if you’re writing a long novel I think you should understand how to make your writing concise and clear. Meandering is fine, but controlled meandering is best.

    • bijouannie says:

      I completely agree. Well said!

    • chichikir says:

      I don’t think meandering of any type is fine especially nowadays when everything quick paced and moves so fast. Writing is more crisp and short and fiction is more about so called journalistic writing rather than descriptive.

      • clairesaag says:

        I’m not sure I agree.. there’s room for all kinds of writing styles, and if you happen to like doing long, descriptive pieces of writing I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You just need to be sure your description is vivid and relevant to the plot or the point you’re trying to make. Personally I’m not a fan of journalistic-type fiction. I like a long, chunky book that takes a long time to read!

      • chichikir says:

        Reading and writing are very subjective. That’s why we have all those genres of books in fiction alone and writers of all sorts! Happy reading and writing 🙂

  5. RebeccaV says:

    Love the last example – My siblings and I always had my dad write our absent notes because he took such care to use big words and make it sound important and the lady at the desk either didn’t want to ask what they meant and sound silly or she really didn’t care quite as much as we did. We always enjoyed reading them to see what he came up with though!

  6. Pingback: I just read a p… « bijou annie

  7. I am infamous for the incredibly long letter. Short isn’t something I used to do well. I have begun to appreciate how to ‘cut to the chase’ and only write what needs to be said. Writing Flash Fiction has helped me immensely to see what needs to be cut away, although I still love to ramble through my novels. 🙂

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