Between A and B

What you leave out is just as important as what you leave in.
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

I love detail.  I bet you already knew that just by skimming a couple of my previous blog posts.  I revel in description, and whenever I tell a story – written or verbal – I always set up the scene and the context: otherwise, how will my audience know what’s important? How will they know why it was funny or sad or ironic that “A” happened to “B”?

When skimming headlines or chapter titles, certain names will stand out in relief; denoting quality in much the same those letter grades tell you which restaurants are safe.  Nora Ephron was one of those “A” letter writers.  So’s David Sedaris.  I actually started dictating a whole host of writers who never fail me and who’s content I actively seek out – but it started to get ridiculously long and derivative: I didn’t want to leave anyone out.

Suffice to say, I have a lot of favorites.

Which is why Writers [on Writing] is such a great resource.  The book contains short essays on writing from a wide host of names – many familiar, some more obscure – including Margaret Atwood, Geraldine Brooks, Elmore Leonard and PJ O’Rourke.  All in all, over 40 novelists, playwrights, journalists, poets and essayists contributed.  I like to pick the book up and flip to entry at random – just to see what I might find.

This afternoon, I started off with a historical little riff penned by Arthur Miller (another favorite) entitled, “Shattering the Silence, Illuminating the Hatred.”  In the piece, Miller relays the events leading up to the publication of his novel Focus,  a book detailing anti-Semitism at a time (the 1940s) when it was everywhere.  In the beginning of the piece, Miller explains how hard it is – so many years later – to accurately relate the confusion and angst at that pre-war era in America., saying “the tone and color of an era are harder to convey the closer one is to it.”

He tells of rushing to a portrait appointment for the books cover, only to run headlong into his closet door and arrive late for the photographer, one eye brilliantly blackened in the process.  “This is why I am in profile on the jacket,” he dryly explains.

In the end, Miller does accomplish what he initially states is impossible – he sets out a tiny little narrative – “this is what happened when my book was about to be published” – and uses to paint a scene that’s vibrant and alive.  After reading the three-page essay, I could feel that frenetic energy of 1940s New York, where war loomed and “wherever one looked, the straight lines went crooked.”

I’ve been thinking for a while now that I need to start playing around with some short stories to hone my storytelling craft.  To be honest, I’ve always avoided short narratives – to me reading is only satisfying if I can dive right in and live amongst the characters for pages and pages.  I love big, fat volumes.  Trilogies are better.  Sprawling epics the best of all.

And since I’ve always felt that ambivalence – or even worse, distaste – is a red flag regarding genre choices and writing assignments, I’m starting to believe that just as short sprints may not be as satisfying as a marathon, or cupcakes may not have the same dramatic presence as a wedding cake, perhaps when it comes to writing, baby steps and short assignments are a good place to start.

Short stories require discipline.  You must remove more content than you leave in.  The final draft of a successful short story undoubtedly ends up shorter than the initial attempt.  In “Hearing the Notes that Aren’t Played,” another essay in Writers [on Writing] David Mamet – the king of concise, devastating dialogue and taught plotting – discusses the power of the unspoken.  What we leave out, he explains, can be just as powerful as what we leave in.

“It is in our nature to elaborate, estimate, predict – to run before the event,” he explains, going on to describe why the ability to run ahead of the plot – to skip what doesn’t need to be said – can enlighten and inspire.  “We are thus delighted and instructed, as per Freud, in a nonverbal way, as to varieties of perception, possibility, completion – we are made better.”

When writers, musicians, or artists craft their work with intended silences, our subconscious can fill in the gaps and those calisthenics lead to a more enjoyable, more enlightening interaction with the work.  “Our consciousness, listening to Bach, has been rewarded, refreshed, chastised, soothed – in Bach and Sophocles both, the burden of consciousness has momentarily been laid down.”

Mamet feels quite strongly about this need for restraint.

“This is the genius of Bach, and the overwhelming demand of dramaturgy – this understanding, or its lack, divides those who can writer from those who can really write: How much can one remove, and still have the composition intelligible?”

Those can be tough orders for writers – like me – who love delving into the intricacies of a scene, who love the rhythm of a grouping of words, who sometimes focus on style over substance.

“The commandments are the same,” instructs Mamet, “leave out the third, concentrate on the missing tone. “

“The fascinating question of Art,” he concludes, “What is between A and B?”

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