This month seems to be about the art of the minimal.
Question of the day for those of you out there who write:
Do you find it easier to add or subtract words?
I have a sneaking suspicion that for most people, it’s easier to add, just as it’s easier to feast than to diet.
Sometimes I refer to the act of editing as amputation. We put so many nerve endings in our writing that cutting words is as painful as severing a living body part.
But luckily, I don’t feel this way this time. The part that needs to go is clearly the fat. I have a lot of excess words padding my prose. It will be a much healthier novel after it sheds a few thousand words.
The trouble is, the fatty words are scattered all over the manuscript. I need to snip a word in one sentence. A couple from the next. A phrase here and there. It’s not liposuction, all out of one spot. It’s a total body reduction.
My novel is no T shirt, free to expand or retract effortlessly around a changing body shape. It wears form-fitting Victorian attire. 8 pounds off means you relace the entire corset, take in a tuck here, a nip there at the seams.
One reason I love writing poetry is its minimalist quality. I can labor on a novel for years. I can finish a poem in a day. Often I take more than a day, to go back and polish, but still, it’s a short-term commitment. You can see the beginning and the end of the project in a single page of your calendar, often a single page for the poem itself.
I remember the first evening I attended a local gathering of poets. Dave Stocking, the learned and considerate gentleman in charge of our critique group, challenged me to cut my poem (about vegetables as an analogy for divorce) in half. I only managed to slice off 1/3, but the poem was much stronger for it. Cleaner. More poignant.
Poetry is healthy for over-writers, like me, because it forces us to pare down our words to the strongest images.
I have written a poem about it:
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROSE AND POETRY
On writing prose:
The plot I reveal is a three-course meal.
On writing poetry:
Each word I serve
is an hors d’oeuvre.
Related to the above, I just heard the results of a poetry contest I entered. The Indiana State Federation of Poetry Clubs (ISFPC) sponsors an annual contest with around 30 categories. I entered about half of them, because I found the specifications of each category inspiring. Some wanted you to write about a predetermined topic, such as Spring or “Small Town, USA.” Others wanted a certain poetic form. I do a lot of couplets and free verse, so this contest forced me to experiment with new forms. The triolet. The trijan refrain.
Not familiar with those? Don’t worry – I had to google them, too.
I placed in 7 categories, which made me smile. (I also smiled because my friends Marlene Million, Mary Couch, Premier Poet, and her sassy and dear mom, Alice, won several awards.)
But what really made me giggle was that the categories in which I scored the highest were the minimalist ones:
The 5-7-5 Award. (That’s haiku to you, although we used the American form, where syllable count is more important than topic or tone.)
It makes me hold on to hope that I too can thrive on a diet of few words, if I pick the right ones. That like Jane Austen, I can learn to write my prose with so fine a brush, on a little bit of ivory not two inches wide.