If we’re lucky, we feel tremendous urgency when we write—urgency to get the thing said and to get it said right. And that’s a good thing. But there’s a pot-hole many writers fall into along that road, which is the mistaken conviction that absolutely everything needs to get said. Sort of the Full Confession idea.
Not such a good thing.
When I was young and gushy (and I’m still a recovering gusher, alas) a wise poet I met at an art colony advised me gently that one way to enter a piece of work that seemed too daunting to begin was to address whomever you envision listening to you in the dark and say: I’m going to tell you something now—but I’m not going to tell you everything.
What that accomplishes (I now understand) is not just entry into an intimidating project, but permission to elide, to edit, skip, clip.
In other words, shut up more.
What you learn as you read more and more is that paying out material in time-limited bundles causes the reader to build the connecting tissue in her own mind.
I first noticed this tactic in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, a book that electrified me and (like all early influences) never really left me.
In that seminal novel Maugham shows us some characters; we watch them interact during a scene or two or three—then he skips forward across big chunks of time, and stops to show you those same characters later. He repeats this method throughout the novel, using his narrator’s “travels” (his narrator is pretty much himself, a writer who travels a lot) as the ostensible reason for the time lapses between meeting up with the characters.
The result’s marvelous. The reader herself imagines what happened in the intervening time, and the effect of each new “visit” to the characters, and the outcome of what has happened to them in the interim, is hair-raising.
I think, too, of the way Alfred Hitchcock rarely showed horror face-on, but alluded to it with artful editing. Compare this, in writing, with what we might call the “chain saw school:” that is, every last grisly bit itemized in full focus—what many readers (or viewers) would definitely call Too Much Information. It’s a time-tested craft rule in film that holding off, holding back, or keeping the monster off-camera, scares the stuffing out of us more powerfully than any special effects might—because our imaginations have done the heavy lifting.
Same’s true for writing.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.