Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you know what to cut? (02/15/12)



Featured writer: Theresa Sanders



Contributors this month:
Claudia Larson
Don Edgers
Marilyn Petty
Sara Baker
Susan Bono
Theresa Sanders


The Fine Art of Doodling

by Theresa Sanders

I am blessed to have artists in my family. My daughter Wendy can look at someone's face and replicate it, every line, crevice, and crook of brow. I am in awe of her talent and her meticulous, creative eye. Likewise, I have admired my sister Christie's artistic ability since we were young. Recently, I watched Christie draw a cute little bunny on a swatch of cotton that would eventually become part of a baby quilt. As she added the whiskers and the animated eyes, nose, and mouth, I noticed how each stroke fleshed in more detail, how each contributed to the emerging whole.

"I better stop," she said at last, putting down her fabric marker after finishing the fluffy white tail. "Sometimes you can just doodle with it too much."

I knew what she meant. In writing, you can also "just doodle with it too much." Since I've always struggled with the concept of "less is more," I must constantly remember that the advice to "kill your darlings" has merit.

So when is less really more? When is more, less? And when, of course, is more, more? As with most elements of writing, I think these answers are subjective. Some writers can convey meaning with a few choice sentences while others need paragraphs. Over time, "killing my darlings" has become less painful for me; I can now leave entire passages, even chapters, on the writing-room floor. The writing itself isn't wasted, and sometimes those scissored passages find their way into other stories, thus gaining life again. The trick, I think, is to employ just enough detail to capture the essence of a given piece. Knowing how to do that speaks to craft, and experience, but I also think a lot of it is instinctual. A lot of it comes from the depths of our writers' souls.

Not surprisingly, it was another talented artist in my family who further taught me about capturing essence. Several months ago, my husband and I visited our son Chris and daughter-in-law Nicole in Minneapolis, where Nicole is pursuing her Master's degree in Art. On a snowy November Sunday, she and Chris took us to Como Conservatory, an elegant glass structure housing tropical vegetation.

There, in that interior summer setting surrounded by imminent winter outside, Nicole snapped a photo of my husband and me. We were poised on a stone pathway, while behind us palms and ferns stood outlined against the chill crystal sky. The sun glimmered from on high, each ray of light traveling through the glass at just the right angle, casting us within a magnificent halo. Nicole had "doodled" with the details endlessly, dismissing one shot after another until she procured the desired essence. Too much background would have been clutter and overkill; not enough might have omitted those dancing sunbeams. The resulting photograph quite literally took my breath away. In it, less really was more. And more, being more, was just right.

Theresa Sanders lives with her husband near St. Louis, Missouri, where she is forever fascinated by details. She welcomes email at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net.

Decisions

  by Claudia Larson

If the words don't settle nicely into the palm of my hand or rise gently in the air like moisture evaporating in the morning sun, if the sentence feels cluttered and clunky or simply deflated, if my breath stumbles and lurches while reading, then I cut and prune, graft and re-plant.

On the other hand, if my shoulders drop and my neck gently lengthens, if my eyes soften as if looking out over vast prairies, if the scent of loam lands on my tongue and my ears widen peripherally, if my breath slows while my heart melts to every corner of my body, then I pause, savoring the sensations before clicking "Save."

Claudia Larson brushed the hay from her coat this morning, after feeding the goats and sheep on her farm in Sebastopol, CA.

Here's One Approach

  by Don Edgers

This snippet comes from an article Don sent to us in January:

"When it came to his work, J.D. Salinger was the ultimate control-freak. He strove for perfection in his writing and sought complete power over its presentation. He ordered his photo be removed from the dust jacket of "The Catcher in the Rye," fought with numerous publishers over his book's content and presentation and his disdain for editing was legendary. When a copy editor at "The New Yorker" dared to remove a single comma from one of his stories, Salinger snapped. "There was hell to pay," recalled William Maxwell, and the comma was quickly reinstated.

Recently uncovered letters demonstrate how the author repeatedly refused any film adaptation of his classic novel. He felt no actor could properly fill the role of Holden Caulfield, although he quipped to Ernest Hemingway that he might be persuaded to play the part himself."


Don Edgers feels no need to hold on so tightly in Port Orchard, WA.

Cutting with Conviction

  by Marilyn Petty

I wonder if his editor suggested that Charles Dickens cut some of those adjectives describing Scrooge as ... "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!..."

"A bit over the top, wouldn't you say?" the editor might hint and Dickens would have replied that he knew what to cut and that not one tittle or jot would be removed from Scrooge's characterization.

"I do not cut what needs to be there," he probably said. He knew what to cut or not cut.

In On Writing Well William Zinsser says he loves to rewrite and he especially likes to cut, to eliminate unnecessary words or phrases, to find a better way of saying what he wants to say until he gets to where he "...would like to arrive." In deciding what to cut he uses words like "feel", "like", "want", "color", "rhythm," not "technique," not "reasoning," not "intellect."

The only way I know what to cut is if I pay attention to what I like, what sounds good, what has rhythm and music. The hard part is believing I can do it with the skill and liveliness of the likes of a Charles Dickens, a William Zinsser or any other writer who knows, with honesty, what, when and why to cut...or not.

Marilyn Petty works at sharpening her cutting skills in Santa Rosa, California.


Just Below the Surface

  by Sara Baker

How does any writer know what to cut? Well, when I'm at that critical stage of writing a piece, my eyes often fail me, but my ears do not. So, I read my work aloud; hearing unconsciously helps me become the reader and ultimately helps me catch phrases that either could be better worded or could be eliminated altogether.

Although having an ear for words is important, it is just one component of a more complex concept—a writer's instinct. Instinct lies just below the surface; in a way, it reminds me of intuition—something I feel in my gut that I know is true. Although instinct is vague and refers to the things I don't consciously control, it is the powerful force behind almost any of my creative endeavors.

Even though instinct is an important creative tool, so is unemotional honesty—the honesty that forces me to take out everything unnecessary and leave only that which carries significant meaning. Anything (words, scenes, characters, and phrases) that doesn't significantly contribute to my story dilutes its power.

So, I continue to learn how to get the most from the least; how to prune language and avoid wasted motion; how to multiply intensities; and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allows more truth to be told.

I'm learning to cut just enough so that the facts float above water and the structure operates out-of-sight. I cut for clarity so that the crux of the story becomes hidden—just below the surface.

Sara Baker is a retired educator turned freelance writer. In addition to writing memoirs and personal narratives, she has begun writing her first novel. When not writing, she enjoys spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she has been married 28 years.


If Not What, When

  by Susan Bono

In February, it's time to prune the wisteria. I know this from an old Sunset Magazine article my mom clipped when she planted her own wisteria 15 years before mine. On a day of thin sunlight and no wind, I climb the shaky wooden ladder next to the arbor, always a bit shocked when I pop up above the leafless tangle of last year's vines. That slight change in altitude is enough to make me see things a little differently. Clippers in hand, I begin to snip at dangling seed pods, dead wood, and wayward branches. As always, the comparisons between gardening and editing float around in my brain as I work.

For some reason, I always begin my pruning at the west end of my arbor, just as I always start editing at the beginning of any piece I am working on. That's why my beginnings are often much more artful than my endings. In writing as in gardening, I run out of steam the longer I go on. By the time I'm contemplating the equally important end of the matter, I can't wait to be over and done with it. As a consequence, I often rush.

I'm a pretty terrible pruner, or so I imagine myself as I work. I get the concept of cutting dead wood, but whether it's wisteria or roses or the pomegranate I planted too close to the house, I have a hard time eliminating anything that's reasonably healthy, especially if it might bear blossoms or fruit. I feel as if I'm sacrificing my chances for real beauty as I cut. Of course, I can't be sure. Wisteria blooms first present themselves as fists of gnarly knuckles, each one looking as unlikely as the next to wow me in March.

Sometimes with my writing or my wisteria, I don't know how well I've pruned until much later, when something comes of my efforts. But even then, I am tempted to be critical. I hold up the image of a "perfect" wisteria arbor with its pendulous cascades of lavender, or another writer's words as they balance perfectly on the page, and deem my project ungainly and insubstantial.

But every February, it's time to prune the wisteria. And as I writer, I am required to shape my experience for the page. Over the years, I am learning to delight in what beauty I do manage to make, in the perspective I gain, and to appreciate even my reluctance to cut.


Susan Bono is enjoying her wisteria arbor and isn't sorry she left too many buds behind last month. She also acknowledges writer Sandy McPheron, whose essay on pruning her orchard informs this response. Sandy's piece, "Just Fifteen Minutes" won first place in Tiny Lights' 2010 contest. Something is wrong with my posting program, or you could read it for yourself online.

The Fine Art of Doodling

  by Theresa Sanders

I am blessed to have artists in my family. My daughter Wendy can look at someone's face and replicate it, every line, crevice, and crook of brow. I am in awe of her talent and her meticulous, creative eye. Likewise, I have admired my sister Christie's artistic ability since we were young. Recently, I watched Christie draw a cute little bunny on a swatch of cotton that would eventually become part of a baby quilt. As she added the whiskers and the animated eyes, nose, and mouth, I noticed how each stroke fleshed in more detail, how each contributed to the emerging whole.

"I better stop," she said at last, putting down her fabric marker after finishing the fluffy white tail. "Sometimes you can just doodle with it too much."

I knew what she meant. In writing, you can also "just doodle with it too much." Since I've always struggled with the concept of "less is more," I must constantly remember that the advice to "kill your darlings" has merit.

So when is less really more? When is more, less? And when, of course, is more, more? As with most elements of writing, I think these answers are subjective. Some writers can convey meaning with a few choice sentences while others need paragraphs. Over time, "killing my darlings" has become less painful for me; I can now leave entire passages, even chapters, on the writing-room floor. The writing itself isn't wasted, and sometimes those scissored passages find their way into other stories, thus gaining life again. The trick, I think, is to employ just enough detail to capture the essence of a given piece. Knowing how to do that speaks to craft, and experience, but I also think a lot of it is instinctual. A lot of it comes from the depths of our writers' souls.

Not surprisingly, it was another talented artist in my family who further taught me about capturing essence. Several months ago, my husband and I visited our son Chris and daughter-in-law Nicole in Minneapolis, where Nicole is pursuing her Master's degree in Art. On a snowy November Sunday, she and Chris took us to Como Conservatory, an elegant glass structure housing tropical vegetation.

There, in that interior summer setting surrounded by imminent winter outside, Nicole snapped a photo of my husband and me. We were poised on a stone pathway, while behind us palms and ferns stood outlined against the chill crystal sky. The sun glimmered from on high, each ray of light traveling through the glass at just the right angle, casting us within a magnificent halo. Nicole had "doodled" with the details endlessly, dismissing one shot after another until she procured the desired essence. Too much background would have been clutter and overkill; not enough might have omitted those dancing sunbeams. The resulting photograph quite literally took my breath away. In it, less really was more. And more, being more, was just right.

Theresa Sanders lives with her husband near St. Louis, Missouri, where she is forever fascinated by details. She welcomes email at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow


Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for 52perfectdays.com, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email: greenwriter1960@gmail.com

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at Writergal53@aol.com, or visit her blog at www.beckypovich.blogspot.com.

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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