Kurt Vonnegut once told us that there are two kinds of writers: those who write too much, and those who write too little. Between the two, he said, the former is the luckier category. Those who write too much must go through the painful process of sacrificing unessential words, sentences, and paragraphs over which they have labored. The advantage, however, is that enough material still remains even after the verbiage and wanderings are subtracted. Those who write too little must add to their compositions. That usually means writing additional material that has to fit into the already existing work. The rule of arithmetic for writers is that it is easier to subtract than to add.
When I write, I often write too much. I get wordy, repeat the same ideas in different ways, and complicate my sentences with awkward construction. But it is difficult not to become attached to my own creations. The written word seems tangible, like a possession. There is satisfaction in ownership. Removing phrases is like taking my comfortable, living-room sofa and tossing it into the street. The process feels both heavy and empty. The result, however, is clarity and organization within the new spaces of the old form.
Although I am not a prolific writer I nonetheless produce an abundance of ideas and constantly accumulate visions of things I might one day create on ‘paper’. I keep a ‘To Do File’, which always expands beyond the confines of a normal file. In paper form, I jot down ideas and notes in spiral notebooks. My definition of exhilaration is to fill a tattered notebook and start a fresh one. Some of the ideas in my notebooks will be fully developed, some saved for later, and some used piecemeal in other stories, poems, essays for which they had not been destined originally.
My problem is with the ideas and notes, which I save for later development. For example, this morning I cleaned out a bookshelf and found a forgotten To Do list. It consisted of three, partially intact, spiral notebooks held together by rubber bands. I had to sift through the pages and decide if I could rekindle the inspiration to transform my notes into actual works, or if I should toss everything into the street with my living-room sofa. I courageously decided to pursue a new vista of creativity. I tossed everything.
Next, I sorted my beloved computer files. There were 10 projects with titles and with starter research and ideas for characters. When would I find the time to write about 10 topics which had seemed important months ago, but which would require much more research and effort? Why had I never finished those essays? That was when I remembered Vonnegut’s wisdom: it is easier for a writer to subtract than to add. It would require tremendous exertion to complete the research and writing for 10 essays. I deleted everything. This is how I do things.
Strangely, I felt a sense of calm when my To Do File became my new and invisible Trash File. The unfinished writing had become a burden, a self-imposed duty with no joy! The topics had gone stale in my mind and I could not bring them back to a workable condition. It would be more invigorating to discover new ideas and to write new essays from scratch. By doing less, I could do more. Sometimes the only way to move forward is to lighten the load.