Sometimes to make our writing better, we need to make it LESS.
Some weeks I know exactly what my theme is going to be. Some weeks I have just a starting point, and I figure it out from there.
I knew, this week, that I wanted to write about a walk that Mark and I took, on a perfect Sunday evening, when so many wonderful things happened. Many of them, oddly, involved ducks.
So I wrote about Mark asking, just as we pushed off, about my good friend Susan. And what rose immediately to mind was a cute and funny story she’d shared, in which her tiny grandson Will had referred to Susan as a ‘lucky duck.’
And then right after that we walked by a shining green Mustang with a mallard duck bobble head on its dash. I put that in, too.
And just after we noticed that bobble head, along came our pretty, youngish neighbor wheeling a baby stroller. From inside the stroller waved a chubby little arm, fingers splayed, playing the evening breeze. Our neighbor’s kids were young teenagers, so we stopped her, demanding to be introduced to this sweet little wind musician.
She told us an amazing story: she had rescued the winsome eight-month-old from a sad, abusive situation. The baby had gone, in a week, from ‘failure to thrive’ to thriving.
Wow wow wow, I thought, and of course I wrote about that, too.
And I wrote about the deer in the big yard by the old house that new owners are painstakingly brining back to life. I wrote about the plastic flamingoes in their yard; sometimes they are pulling the big wooden wagon that graces the rolling front lawn. Sometimes they are driving it.
Sometimes, the flamingoes are on the porch chairs, with umbrella drinks on side tables next to them.
Of course, I wrote about them too.
And I wrote about being startled, as we walked through a hidden neighborhood, to see one green-headed mallard duck sitting contentedly in the middle of an enormous side lawn. What was he doing THERE? we wondered, and I wrestled my I-Phone out of my jeans pocket and snapped a shot or two. (By then, you know, we were annoying him, and he was waddling rapidly away from us.)
I wrote, too, about seeing our neighbor Sandy out watering her plants, and learning that she was headed in for foot surgery the next day. She was worried about keeping up with her burgeoning garden. We promised we would help.
And here’s a funny thing: the very next night, my son Jim and I took a ride to the department store, which is on a hill in a development. The development boasts a lovely pond. Ducks live in the pond, and we were stopped, on our way home, by a line of fuzzy little quackers, ignoring their little mama and waddling all over the street. I had to put that in, of course.
And then, thinking about all of this made me remember something–the very first research paper I’d ever done, in second grade. Topic: mallard ducks.
I wrote about that and how I enjoyed the writing process, and about how I believed then that I would making a living doing just that: writing research papers. Maybe research papers exclusively about ducks.
At that point I thought to myself, why not do some research RIGHT NOW on ducks? And that was when I realized ducks were my theme.
And I did research them, and I found fascinating information on three different sites and I wrote it all down–folklore and symbology and fun, fun facts.
And one of the things I wrote made me remember a phrase (“Just ducky!”) my sister-in-law Patty loved to say. Patty died on Mother’s Day this year, the victim of a swift, one-week stealth attack by the cancer she’d beaten back twice over a period of twenty years. She was a sweet, blithe, positive spirit; she lived far away, and so the loss was not woven into my every day life.
But it was very much there. And I realized that all of my duck talk was leading to that: that ducks remind me of how much I miss Patty, of how sad I am that she died.
THAT reminded me of a phenomenon my niece Shayne and I shared after my brother–her dad–died; we saw butterflies everywhere–unusually everywhere. We felt then the butterflies were a reminder, a message, a comfort. I wrote down that story.
And then I sat back and looked at the organic ramble my writing had become. It was all fascinating to ME, of course, but, as an essay it was–well, frankly, it was kind of a mess.
Frustrated, I powered down my IPad and mixed up a batch of cookies.
It was good to let it rest. When I came back, I realized that I needed to pare things down, support my theme: ducks remind me of Patty. I left the lucky duck story in as an intro, and I kept the mallard bobble head.
And much as I loved the story,–and much as I thought I’d told it well–I took out the bit about our valiant neighbor rescuing the baby. I exited the deer and the flamingoes, and I reluctantly took out the encounter with Sandy in her garden.
Oh, I was sad to let things go that I thought were important in themselves and fascinating. But, I realized, there might be fodder for a whole OTHER essay–maybe one about the unexpected wonders of living in a neighborhood full of lovely, quirky, caring individuals.
I culled the on-line research I’d done, too, just including a reference to the one site that explaining the meaning of seeing ducks waddling to me. That explanation led me right to my realization that ducks reminded me how much Patty is loved and missed.
Now I had a clear thread of thought, with no diversions. One thing led to another and led to another and led to an insight worth writing about.
I had chopped away easily as much writing as I kept intact, but the result was a much, much better structure. Once again, I saved and walked away.
And then, returning, I tweaked words and thought about intros. I decided the story of Shayne and the butterflies–of how we see reminders in nature of things we really should consider–WAS, after all connected. I put that, in italics, as a little opening piece, a doorway into this tree of thought.
All that remained was to obsessively wordsmith the piece eight or ten or twenty times.
When I finally polished the essay, I realized that I hadn’t asked my friend Susan if I could use her name. I made the lucky duck story generic–using ‘my friend’ instead of Susan’s name. It’s just my personal policy–I never put names in unless I’ve checked with the person first. And then I thought the essay was, finally ready to go. (I’ll publish it tomorrow, and share the link. I’d love to hear if you agree that it was, finally, tightly themed.)
In writing classes, we talk about the writing process, as if everyone has the same process and we can codify and channel it. And that of course, is just not true. But however we write, we need to keep the clippers handy. We need to be ready to lop and chop beloved words and let them fall to make the trunk apparent, to let our readers see the singular, skillfully constructed beauty of our thoughts.
What’s lopped may never be used again, and oh, it’s sad to let the beauty and the meaning of well-crafted words sink away. But those lopped branches might take root, too–there might be a whole other essay ready to grow from those green thoughts.
And, trimmed and lean, pared down to essence and meaning, our writing stands–healthy, long-lasting, its tendrils ready to reach other readers.
May your words be ready and your loppers be sharp!
Happy blogging, my friends!