Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ingrained


Yesterday, I got an email about a short story contest and thought, yeah, I've got just the story. I wrote it nine years ago and it sticks with me. I've liked it from the moment I wrote it and, reading it yesterday, found I still like it. This is not always the case with my writing, especially when nearly a decade has come between me and the writing of it. This piece, called "Dancer," still resonates and I figured I would send it in. Then I looked at the contest rules. "Stories can be no longer than 2000 words." I wondered how long "Dancer" was. Ctrl-Shift-C told me the answer: 3300 words.

I'm about to try to make a point with all this and I'll state it here first so that I remember what I'm writing about and so that you won't think this is just me rambling on. I didn't worry about the fact that the story was 1300 words over the limit. I still thought it was the right story. I also just knew that I could cut it down to 2000 words without losing anything. I knew that cutting it would make the piece better. I had no doubt.

Cutting words from writing is a tough skill to teach. I know this because I've been trying to help students learn it for seventeen years. That means that it's tough to learn to. Writers, in my experience, are fairly devoted to their words. What's on the page feels as though it should stay on the page. It was hard enough to write all those words. Cutting any of them sometimes feels like too much to even consider. This is how I have felt, it's what students have expressed to me, and I imagine that other writers feel the same sorts of thing.

That said, I've come to love cutting. I tend to write long and cut 20%. I think Stephen King suggested that number (though I think King could cut 30% at least). Cutting words has become a thing I do as a matter of course. It's not painful any more. In fact, I look forward to it.

In other words, I have, over the course of many years, created a habit that has stuck. Surely this is a good lesson for me to apply throughout my life as I try to get in shape with running, lose weight through a heightened awareness of what I'm eating, and write these essays trying to develop an audience. What is tough now won't necessarily be tough later if I can get the habit established.

So what about the story?

I made a pass through it on the computer. I cut slowly at first, getting a feel for the story, and then was chopping words right and left. After the first pass I was down to 2400 words. I knew then that I could make it. Every cut felt as though I was trimming fat, building muscle in the story. I made another pass, slower than the first, and cut the piece down to 2100 words. I came back to it that night while my wife watched television and kept at it until after ten (which is past my bedtime). Coming up to bed, I raised my hands over my head, and declared that "Dancer" was now down to 1990 words. "I win," I said. My wife smiled. She gets my simple pleasures.

Today, I have passed through the story four more times. I've cut more, but I've also put in some new things and it stands, for the moment at 1994 words, which is a bit too close to the limit for my tastes. When I told students what I was up to, they asked if I was done. I said, "no, I'll probably read it ten or twelve more times." They were horrified by this, given that there are video games waiting to be played, but I smiled. "It's what I do," I told them.

And it is what I do. It's so in my system that I can't imagine not doing this stuff. I'm getting to be that way with running, but I'm not there yet. I've gotten to that point with fast food, which is to say, I can't imagine I'll ever eat it again, but eating well is still not a full-blown habit. I've got things to learn as I pass through my life and my awareness over and over again.

I have some other things I've figured out about teaching and writing and what I want to do in this life, but those will have to wait for another entry. For now, if you'll pardon me, I just thought of an idea for another story and I think I had better go write on.