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Delete Without Censoring

Tai Lin writes a novel, one sentence a day. What a delightful experiment, though it’s progressing…..rather….slowly. This reminds me of a little experiment I did at grad school; it was about a New York editor coaching Kafka about how to improve his story by reducing the word length. With each rewrite, Kafka’s short story become shorter, until it finally disappeared.

I don’t have the perseverence or write something along the lines of Tai Lin’s project, but I understand the value of going to sleep and knowing you’ve written something creative, even only a sentence. This weblog of mine is just an outlet; occasionally I veer onto tangents and rants; occasionally I develop a post into an essay, but generally this weblog is neither here nor there. But when I find the time and attention to add something to a story, I feel like I’m actually heading somewhere. It’s man’s search for meaning all over again every fucking day. And when I see that a sentence has been added or (better yet) polished or deleted, the rest of my day is pure bliss. I read some literary blog recently (perhaps it was Depressing Books) that talked about how painful writing was. Well, there is a bit of pain involved, (why deny it?) but for the most part it is terrific fun, a kind of spiritual journey where for once you can actually succeed. I won’t be so naive as to say that my creative works are “perfect,” but it’s certainly doable, not impossible. In high school I used to believe that some emotions were inexpressible, some situations were just too difficult to describe. I used to buy into the Wittgenstein malarkey that if you can’t we should pass over a lot of things in silence because communication is just too darn hard. Those sort of writing problems come with youth, when you think every sentence must be metaphor-laden and full of imagery and meaning (Yes, I have a bagful of examples).

As a writer matures, flow and ease of reading matters more than aesthetics. They are related, of course. Form, function, blah blah blah. Occasionally when I come to a sentence or paragraph, I try to say something sublime or poetic. I try to write the thought. Then I try again, and again. And it looks terrible, so I try some more. Then I go to sleep, awake and try some more. And here’s why I can be such a brilliant writer: I can recognize when I’m licked. Sometimes I think that I have this great moment or insight, then after dozens of rewrites, I just can’t express it exactly right. It seems so close, but the more I try, the further away I get. Sometimes the proximity of beauty is mere illusion, and sometimes a snug transition can be an exhilirating substitute. I recall a brilliant Raymond Carver sentence: “He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve switched from a half-profound thought to some sentence like that and just burst with self-satisfaction.

Now here’s the thing. Sometimes deleting parts ends up bugging me later. I never forget it. Whenever I come to that part of the story, I wonder if that snug transition was just an avoidance strategy. Writer’s block often indicates deeper problems; you may think the problem is merely one of style, but the more you try, the more you realize you should have deleted the paragraph or the page or changed the point of view altogether. In writing you learn how to delete without censoring.

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