Writing Consciously

Writing Consciously:

The difference between Reducing and Gleaning

6/10/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

    It was Thoreau, of course, who expressed his intent to stay at Walden Pond so that he could “live deliberately.” The very idea is jarring. What might compel a man to give up a life of comforts and surpluses for a barebones existence on the edge of a lake? Thoreau responds to these invisible questions in the very first paragraph of his famous narrative: “to put to rout all that was not life.”

    Just about all writers begin their literary sagas in the comforts of excess wording, idiomatic cornucopia and paragraphs to spare. They express in thirty words what can be expressed in five—should it be expressed at all. Writing seems easy enough to them; a few minutes in front of a keyboard or notebook, and—voila!—a finished story. In crafting tales with a liberal eye for wording, however, they admit into their prose what I call “Unconscious words:” bits of text included not out of a deliberate choice of words, but because it is common—perhaps expected—to see that word in that particular place. A spider’s web of parallels can be drawn between this phenomenon and Thoreau’s seemingly unconscious life.

I, too wrote with an unconscious hand; I, too sought to eliminate the waste. Oddly enough, the experiment to strip my pieces to the core proved unsuccessful. Writing became a chore as I strained to reduce long drafts into concise, yet comprehensive pieces. What used to take fifteen minutes of writing then took an hour. Only at that point did an alleged quote of Hemingway, “I would have written you a short letter, but I didn’t have the time,” truly resonate in my head. I looked at some of my stories, increasingly cold and barren with each plucked word, and wondered if Thoreau hadn’t made a big mistake.

    Indeed, I feel that he overlooked something. There have always been two means for improving upon an unconscious piece: reduction and “gleaning.” Suppose that someone is placed before a county landfill and given the task of improving the setting. A literary minimalist would focus wholly on stripping the landfill to its bare essentials; they would throw out televisions and tin cans alike and finish with a smaller pile that captures the essence of the trash dump. A gleaner, of whose ranks I would aspire to join, sees the same pile and wonders if the landfill cannot be transformed altogether. They would take the time to dig out perfectly good bits of waste—a flat screen television here, a car radio there—and finish with an array of working equipment in place of the refuse. It is simple enough to minimize a piece until only the roots show, but far more complex—yet far more satisfying—to condense that article or story around the very best parts.

    During my stay at the figurative pond of reductionism, I came across a realization that added a little warmth to the fire. Writing deliberately has little to do with stripping a story to its base and proclaiming it a finished draft. Length is not the yardstick by which literature is measured. It simply has to do with remaining conscious: conscious of every word that needs an upgrade, every sentence whose meaning gets buried in extraneous chatter. Flowery wording and even run-on sentences are fine should the writer have a purpose in including them.

    I have since returned from my stay at the pond, a bit disgruntled with Walden’s minimalist atmosphere. Though I agree with Thoreau that writing is often done unconsciously, I refute his point that the answer lies merely in throwing all the literary luggage out, good or bad, and publishing the suitcase. Good literature has no word limit; its success lies in its unique and novel qualities, few of which exist at the very base of the story.

    Thoreau saw his house and elected to strip it down to the drywall. I see my house, note its congruence with those around it, and elect to paint it a different color, replace the staircase, carve out a rooftop patio and—if necessary—demolish the thing and start anew. Deliberate writing
rests on a base of innovation, reform and consciousness that can extract the crystal from the geode.

    It is simple enough to strip life and literature to the barest essentials. Yet, I must caution those who consider such an act deliberate living or writing not to toss the baby out with the bathwater, to use a tired expression. Writing becomes conscious only when it assumes only the best parts of a draft, not the most elemental.

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