John McPhee’s books got my attention in the early 1970s and I’ve been a reader of his since then. Of course, he’s often in the The New Yorker magazine, that bastion of great writing and especially great creative nonfiction. So when I saw his latest essay about writing in the Sept. 14, 2015 issue, I knew I had to at least mention the piece, and call it to the attention of writers I know.
The piece is called Writing by Omission and its basic premise is that less is more when it comes to great writing.
I have to agree. Of course, I’m in good company–Mark Twain also believed we writers needed to “kill all our little darlings” –all those details and turns of a phrase we are so attached to but that serve better in their omission than in the piece.
Novice writers have a hard time with this. “Oh, but I NEED that stuff to tell the story!” How many times have I heard this from writing students, workshop participants or writer friends?
And how many times have I, myself, said it?
Oh yes, me, too. I’ve been guilty.
McPhee began to learn this lesson many decades ago, when his New Yorker editor deleted 85 percent of a piece about oranges he submitted.
That’s harsh, isn’t it? Why, it’s nearly the entire piece! You can see why he would be distressed. What writer wouldn’t be upset?
In his New Yorker piece, McPhee goes on to explain how it all unfolded –in excruciating detail, I might add–but in this case, the detail serves. (In the interests of full disclosure I have to say that sometimes writers in that magazine drone on and on with so much detail that fails to serve. Fails to serve me, in any case. So the irony that this piece on deletion appeared in this particular magazine does not escape me.)
Early in the essay, McPhee points this out: Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out.
Yes, exactly. We may do it unconsciously or consciously. I do it consciously when I edit my work and see how much better it is with other choices.
McPhee’s comparison to a sculptor’s work fits beautifully: Sculptors address the deletion of material in their own analogous way. Michelangelo: “The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows.” Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
Yes, the story is there, writers. It’s up to us to find it.
And he quotes Ernest Hemingway: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
I could say more about this, but why? Three world-class writers and a world-class sculptor have already made the point so well. I’m just sharing it.
Oh, and by the way: McPhee’s advice applies to life, too. When we cram our lives full of…you name it…stuff, activities, whatever….are we making the most of it? An edited life might well be a more functional one.
If you don’t subscribe to the New Yorker, the piece can be found here. And really, if you’re a writer, you should subscribe. Just saying.