Cinthia Ritchie: Editing down to the truth

Earlier this week I received an email from an editor informing me that one of my poems had been chosen for an upcoming anthology.

Good news, right?

The next paragraph suggested that I delete the last two lines in order to “leave the reader with a stronger image at the poem’s end.”

I’m all for powerful ending. In fact, I had spent years (literally) working out that particular poem’s final imagery. It can easily take that long to find the right cadence, the right pacing; the right words.

Naturally I fought this suggestion. I fumed and muttered and decided that the editor knew nothing. I decided that his publication wasn’t worthy of my poem.

Finally, though, I sat down and rewrote the piece. I omitted the last two lines, printed out a copy, held it in my hands and read it out loud. At first it sounded awkward, as if it were trying to be something it wasn’t (the way I often feel when I stumble around in high heels and work attire). But by the third reading, I had to admit that taking away the last two lines rendered a more immediate effect. The ending, while less dramatic, was cleaner and crisper. Every word resonated with a new found authority.

By subtracting from the poem and making it less, it had become more.

Later that night I wondered if I could do the same with my second novel. I had been stuck for months. I couldn’t budge, couldn’t move forward; I found myself writing the same lines over and over until frustrated, I’d either stumble off to bed or stay up late watching Sex and the City reruns.

Yet again, I had to fight against myself in order to accomplish this. Why is it so scary to delete our own words, even when we are simply transferring them over to another file for safekeeping? Is it because the more we trim down our prose and eliminate the excess, the more we reveal of ourselves?

Or, as Henry Thoreau said, “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”

A few days ago I took Thoreau’s advice, sat down at my desk and began to slash from my book. I copied a backup file (Oh, Thoreau, how far we’ve come!) and deleted without mercy. It wasn’t easy. I actually broke out in a sweat a few times. Yet the mere act of deleting one scene led me to another, more honest scene. It brought out an endearing side of my protagonist I hadn’t known existed, opened her up to a beauty that caused me to weep as I wrote.

However, for all the knowledge that the book is better and richer for these deletions, part of me wants to go back and re-add everything I omitted. I want to plump words around my characters, as if in reinforcement. I don’t want to leave them standing alone on the page, so stark and open. I don’t want to leave myself standing alone. I want to dive down between cluttered metaphors. Part of me longs to write safe and part of me wants longs to bare myself to the bone.

I wonder if we all struggle with this, if it’s part of the dichotomy of being a writer, how we both write to be seen and write to remain hidden. Maybe it’s like therapy: We talk on and on, we circle around meaning, fortify ourselves with pauses until we feel safe enough to see the truth. Because, face it, while we say that we write for readers, we ultimately write for ourselves.

Cinthia Ritchie is a former journalist and Pushcart Prize nominee who lives and runs mountains in Alaska. She’s a recipient of two Rasmuson Individual Artist Awards, a Connie Boocheever Fellowship, residencies at Hedgebrook, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Hidden River Arts, the Brenda Ueland Prose Award, Memoir Prose Award, Sport Literate Essay Award, Northwest PEN Women Creative Nonfiction Award, Drexel Magazine Creative Nonfiction Award and Once Written Grand Prize Award. Her work can be found in New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Memoir, Under the Sun, Literary Mama, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Sugar Mule, Breadcrumbs and Scabs, Third Wednesday, Writer’s Digest, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Cactus Heart Press and over 30 other literary magazines and small presses. Her debut novel, Dolls Behaving Badly (click here for B&N, here for IndieBound), was released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.

6 thoughts on “Cinthia Ritchie: Editing down to the truth”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Another great post, Cinthia, and I plan to share this with my Revision class tonight! We're talking about paring away. One standard piece of advice is to cut 10%. But you've gotten to the deeper psychological/literary issues here — that yearning to both conceal and expose. Your poem example hits the mark: try to cut, then stand back, and see if it works. Thanks for all your wonderful blogposts this month.

  2. Great post. I suspect we all write to conceal and reveal. That's why revision is so tough.

  3. Really enjoyed this, Cinthia. And it's so funny because I woke up this morning with the realization that I need to cut at least half of the scene I wrote yesterday. But sometimes I think the stuff I write and then cut is just as important in helping me tell the story, but in ways that maybe no one will ever know but me.


    Eowyn! I said the exact same thing just the other day, that the bulk of what I cut is as essential if not more essential than the actual writing. I often think we have to write ourselves in the mood (like foreplay), write full lives for our characters, write to cement ourselves in a scene or situation before we actually write, if that makes sense.
    Cheers and happy writing.

  5. I always draw such inspiration from your posts, both the content and how you express it. I think the insight about "padding" to protect and cover up is right on.

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