Today I wrote for about two hours, finishing a poem I have been working on for days. At one point the poem was one of the longest poems I have ever written, nearly three pages full of verse, assonance, alliteration, and clever (if I do say so myself) turns of words. It was one of those poems that kept you guessing, seeming to lead you in one direction, then twisting you unexpectedly in another direction through a labyrinth of verse. I really enjoyed writing it. I was kind of proud of it, since long poems are not my forte.
But then, I began to edit, and it changed. Bit by bit I deconstructed my epic verse, carving this little piece and that little piece, working hard to whittle away anything that did not have to do with the essence of the poem. When I was done, it was 7 lines. 7 short lines.
But it was truer. It captured, far more effectively, in 7 short lines. the essence of what I wanted to say.
I have always had trouble padding things. For me, writing anything good is often more about stripping away what is unnecessary than just getting the words down. It is something that at times, got me in trouble.
I can remember one year in graduate school at VCU, I wrote an essay for one of my classes. It was supposed to be something like 10 pages long, but my paper, when I was done, was only about five pages. The teacher made me take it back and revise it. I did, not by re-writing, but by adding fluff that filled the pages without adding anything to the argument. I got my 10 pages done and got my "A". But the paper, in my mind, was far weaker at 10 pages than it was at 5.
As a writer, whether it be "creative" writing like poetry and fiction, or "professional" writing like proposals or copy writing, my first drafts have tended to be wordy. It is as if I need to just throw a lot of stuff out there because it's all floating around, and then I need take the time to step back and whittle away to get to the essence. When I was in graduate school at Hollins, I had a friend, Jack Herzig who pointed that out to me. He often suggested that I cut out huge chunks of my poem to make it what it really was. I often hated it, but he was always right. And I have carried that lesson with me for the longest time.
There is magic in finding the essence of something. I have a particular fondness of artists who capture the essence of something in a few lines. I can't do that. My own drawings are a thicket of lines and details, and people like them well enough to hang them in their homes. But I lack that ability to reduce a drawing to the essence. Fortunately I can do it with words.
Doing it though, requires a bit of discipline, and a bit of sacrifice. Creative people take ownership of what they do. It's not just something we write, it's part of us. And it's hard to cut off part of us, even when perhaps, it's not the best part. Those of us who have been through counseling over an extended time, know just what I mean, because that is at times part of the counseling process. But the rewards are great.
The rewards are not just that whittling down often ends up with something better, more true and focused, though heaven knows that would be a pretty good reward all by itself. But there is also the self knowledge that you have the power to create at your best. And that dear readers, is magical.
PS - If you are a poetry reader, you can read the poem I refer to in this essay here.