Editing down the stuff of life

by Kristin on September 28, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Orin Zebest

Yesterday on Twitter, @kathrynhawkins asked the question “Why is it 4 times harder to write a 250-word article than a 1,000-word one?”

I laughed—it’s so true, and truth can be really funny when it suddenly stops lurking around in the shadows and looks you full in the face. My response was this: “ha! so true! mostly because being succinct is a much bigger challenge than saying it all. we don’t like making choices.”

I found myself mulling over the question as the day went on, and I decided the issue has two parts: The first part is that we want things to be easy. Yes, this could be another way of saying we’re inherently lazy. We do the brain dump, get an idea down, and we want to believe our work is done.

And let’s face it—it’s hard to say or do anything really meaningful, that manages to dig beneath the surface, with less. Sometimes, as writers, it feels like we have two choices: Long and colorful prose, with personality, details and emotion; or short, plain, rudimentary sentences. Of course, that’s not true. Those are just the easier choices. To achieve a hybrid takes work (and maybe—just maybe—we are prone to laziness).

Creatures of habit and sentiment

The second part of this problem is that we become attached to things, ideas, for the wrong reason. They comfort us, and become our blankies. We get used to them amazingly fast, and then we fail to see their original purpose in the larger context, if they even had one. Critical thinking goes out the window, and all we can see is the imagined hole they would leave if we had to do without.

I’ve been working as a writer for more than 15 years now (eek, I’m old!), so I’ve learned a thing or two about letting go of words. There are plenty of people in my life—graphic designers, clients, editors—who are eager for me to get rid of as many words as possible, for good reason. For the most part, I just don’t have the luxury to indulge myself and say everything I feel the urge to say. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to cut ideas down to the bones, and then try to put some scraps of flesh back on them, but it’s certainly easier for me than it used to be.

But in other areas of my life, it seems I’ve learned nothing about editing. As I said in my tweet, “we don’t like making choices.” We can’t bear to think of the work it takes, or the hole that might be staring at us when we’re done. That hole represents regret—even just the possibility of regret, that we’ll get rid of something we’ll later wish we had.

What is the meaning of all this stuff?

Jason and I have spent the last few days “thinning out” the rooms of our house. We’re getting photos taken today, so we can put the house on the market (just to see what happens, in hopes of being able to buy something with a bit more space and at least two bathrooms). We’re not really getting rid of much stuff right now, but we are going through things, room by room, and asking ourselves those critical questions: How much do we use this? How much do we love this? How much would we miss it? How critical is this to making this house feel like our home?

I can be somewhat ruthless with these types of questions as I write, but oh, a house full of stuff is a different story. Because it is a story, you know. That’s why convincing 10-year-old S to get rid of anything is like pulling teeth—she lives her life in story, and sees all of her things as characters, symbolism, flashback, metaphor, and, of course, setting.

I’m learning a lot, though, as I talk her through it. I can definitely empathize with her emotional stance, but I can also rationally see through to the other side—to a place where the most essential, meaningful, rich ideas are not only preserved, but allowed to shine. It’s this vision that will keep me editing away, bit by bit.

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  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    Nice connection. I do find that my writing, almost without exception, is better after whittling. Thinning out requires you to figure out what the f*#$ you were trying to say in the first place. And if I really don’t feel like I can whittle, maybe I don’t know what I just said, or didn’t say it at all.

    Oh, I can so sympathize with S! As a kid, I developed emotional attachments to EVERYTHING…maybe in a slightly different way. Everything had a life and soul of its own. To get rid of something I owned would be to cruelly reject it, to deny it love, and then sentence it to a horrible existence in a garbage pile or in the hands of someone else, leaving it to wonder what it did so wrong that I didn’t love it anymore. Weird, huh? I wish I could tell you there was some magical technique my mother tried to get me to let go, but there wasn’t–she just said, fine, keep it all! Then I got crowded in, grew up a little, and changed my way of thinking on my own.

    But I still don’t think I slept for weeks after seeing the first two Toy Story movies. As an adult, I have wisely decided to forego the torture of the third. ;D

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve


  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I tried to commit to thinning out my writing, esp. since I’m self-admittedly very long-winded. It didn’t work. I still write more than I need to. But I think it’s interest to compare that to the things in your home.

    I just moved and I got kind of ruthless when I was packing – I gave away a lot of clothes, downsized my knick-knacks and even gave away books (a very big deal for me). But interestingly, my new home didn’t really feel like home until I finally unpacked and placed all the “extra” stuff – the candles, the picture frames, the little things that don’t do anything, but mean something to me. It wasn’t really home until those things were finally in their place.

    Maybe it’s the same way with writing – we work towards the hybrid you wrote about because without some balance, it’s not really quite right.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com Ed Cyzewski

    My pastor and I talked about this for a while today. It’s quite hard to say something important in a few words, to figure out what an audience needs to know and what can be tossed. And ironically, we spent a long time talking about this… saying a lot about saying a little… ;) Great post for writers by a great writer.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Thanks for this excellent post on writing, Kristin. I will share it with my writer’s group next week.

    But even more thanks for this excellent post on life. Perhaps the reason we can pare down the words on a page is we have some confidence of mastery of language. But mastery of life? Well, that’s something else, isn’t it? Yet I’m convinced that a lifetime spent learning from the Master can produce some measure of skill in living–not perfection, but perhaps increasing skill in life. I trust he’s teaching me day-by-Day. Lord knows I need it!

  • http://www.kathrynjennex.com Kathryn

    I love the way you talk about editing words then drift into editing the story of a life. Thank you :)

  • http://comfortjoy.blogspot.com Sharon

    I never thought of the things — yea, clutter! — as story. I like the image, and encouragement, that what is left will shine more brightly.

  • http://www.larkinsplace.com Larkinsmom

    I am linking you to a post I wrote a long time ago. Thought you would enjoy the read as it pertains to the subject. Clutter is a thing of the past for my house ~ can only have clutter inside my head now :)


    Love this post! You will be surprised how much “lighter” you will feel when it’s all finished.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Genevieve, I often tell people in my Mediabistro seminars that writers should be thankful, not annoyed, when designers ask them to cut even more words from their copy. In each instance, just when I think I can’t possibly cut more, I can—and 99 percent of the time it’s better writing in the end. Regarding my little pack rat, I really wish I could embrace the whole “keep it all—some day you’ll learn” approach, but we’re living in fairly tight quarters, and S shares a room. Also, while you turned out beautifully, what if she ends up on Hoarders? It seems like a good idea to help her think through some of this now.

    Meredith, I’m curious, are you talking about your blog, or about other writing you do? Because I tend to be long-winded on my blog, too (as you may have noticed!). And I think that’s OK, even if there are so-called blogging rules out there that suggest otherwise. Long essays can be so gorgeous and moving, in a way that sucks you in. I guess the key is making sure all the words are actually doing important work, whether intellectual or emotional. As you pointed out, something can serve a valuable purpose even if it doesn’t have a clear practical purpose. (Btw, I love William Zinsser’s chapter about clutter in On Writing Well.)

    Ed, the irony of “saying a lot about a little”—that’s how it often works, isn’t it? I often have to write a lot before I can figure out exactly what I need to say and what’s superfluous. The best writing process for me falls into place when that whole “saying a lot” part happens in my head or in a conversation with someone, so by the time I sit down to write I’m ready to say a little, in exactly the way I need to.

    Ray, that’s a really interesting theory—this idea that we can have some mastery over writing that we can never quite grasp when it comes to life. I think you’re right. And there are so many great writers to learn from—we read their words and discover what’s powerful and try to emulate—but great lives can be harder to spot and harder to emulate. Maybe we need to be more deliberate about being students of life, similar to the way we study and practice other skills.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Kathryn, thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. :)

    Sharon, it’s one of those metaphors that seems to just keep working, the longer you think about it! Having a sense of how the story will be stronger in the end is definitely motivating—it gives me hope and determination.

    Larkinsmom, I already feel lighter! Of course, everything’s in our garage and basement right now, but little by little the true purging will happen. Just getting the stuff out of the rooms makes a difference, and helps you see what you really don’t need after all. (Btw, I loved your post. Having been through a divorce really adds a whole layer of complexity to this “sorting stuff” issue, doesn’t it?)

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    The top of your post is so funny to me — Though I spend most of my professional life writing I occasionally edit, and when I assign someone a story I usually tell them to write 300 words and no more (that’s what the company wants). I can remind them to write 300 words a dozen times and inevitably I will end up with 500 words every single time. I mentioned that to my fiance, and he said the same thing as you — it’s because they’re lazy and want me to do the hard work of selecting what stays and what goes.

    I find though, with words and personal effects, editing can get a little easier over time. You start to see what’s superfluous and what’s important. We had to get rid of A LOT of stuff to move into our new house because we were combining two lives into one house with very little closet space. It was hard, but I find if every few weeks or so I do a small edit of clothes and stuff, it’s not so hard.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    The Modern Gal, great minds think alike, I guess? I’ve definitely been on both sides of the equation—as the writer who doesn’t want to do the hard, decision-making work, and the editor who is frustrated when people don’t take my word-count requests seriously. In my home life, my husband and I both had complete households of stuff when we met, but we didn’t take the time to really sort through it all. Now we’re paying, of course. If we end up moving, we will do it right—live and learn.

  • http://LarryLarsonPiano.com Larry Larson

    One day my electrician neighbor came into my garage to help me fix my circuit-breaker box. He grabbed one of my screwdrivers to use as a chisel. (not good for the screwdriver). I said “Don’t use that one, I got it from my Uncle, who taught me how to fix cars”. He grabbed another one. “Oh, don’t use that one, when my best friend died i asked his wife if I could have something he used, something he wore, and something he wrote, and she let me have this screwdriver that Tony had used”. “How about this one?” he asked. I laughed and said, “No, that was my Dad’s…..”
    I’ve lived in very large houses and very small houses, so the number of my possessions has fluctuated worse than the temperature gage on a car with a sticky thermostat. I’m aware that currently, minimalism represents moral affluence. But here’s my latest attempt to defend my ownership of objects I don’t use and have no logical reason to keep: they are liturgical. They are embedded with memories of people I have loved and places I cherish. I think Westerners can be symbol deficient. We say things like “It’s only a symbol, it’s not the real thing”. Yes, my Uncle Ed’s screwdriver is meant to drive screws. But now it serves a higher, and maybe more real purpose. It reminds me of all those Saturday mornings as a young boy when he taught me how to know “by feel” when a spark plug was tight enough. How he let me be the one to start the car after we had fixed it together. Of the smell and texture of the Lava Soap we used afterward to wash our hands together in his basement.
    Before my Dad died he solemnly handed over to me the clippers his father had used to cut his hair when he was a young boy. He made me promise to keep them. Years later in a frenzy of possession bulimia I threw them away. Sorry Papa. Silly me, I thought they were just for cutting hair….

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Larry, what a great story—a great way to illustrate how the *meaning* of objects can reach far deeper than their usefulness (and, of course, often the opposite is true). I like the idea of objects being liturgical, even to the extent that sometimes the remembering is filled with more hurt than joy. It’s still important to remember, though. It’s also possible to take that remembering too far, and to reside too much in the past with all of the things that populated that past. It can feel really good—in a healthy way, I think—to purge. Now if we could only come up with a formula for conclusively deciding what should stay and what should go. :)