I had a 1500 word essay that I wanted to turn into a 500 word essay in order for it to fit into a specific online blog. Cutting out two thirds of a piece of writing may sound a bit daunting to some, but I loved the challenge of this. Actually, I both loved and hated it. It took me a fair amount of time and effort for sure, but it was well worth it. The fun of it was that I had to make every word count. I don’t always do this in my writing, so it was good practice. The bad part was that I had to cut large chunks out of the essay, parts that I originally thought belonged there. Sixty-seven percent of the essay had to go. That’s a lot. I cut out words, then whole paragraphs, picking and choosing what could be sacrificed, what was essential and what was just fluff. In other words, I had to get down to the bare bones and this required deciding: what are the bare bones? What is essential?
And this is what I love about simplifying. It’s a creative privilege, a designing of one’s own life, getting to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. It’s something I have not mastered, and will not ever truly master. Ah, but the lofty goal, the striving toward, no matter how many times I fall short, makes me happy. To only keep what we use or love, buy what we need; to only think about what serves us well and only eat what is good for us. To only say what we mean. What simply amazing results this could all have.
This paring down of the essay was something I could do, completely and successfully. I had a definite limit- 500 words- and the result I was going for was clear-to have this piece published, out into the world. My entire blog is centered around the concept of simplifying and now it was time to apply it to my writing. It was work and art and love, all for a useful purpose: to write what I mean and mean what I write.
The essay was about my choice to take my daughters out of traditional schooling. I started at the beginning. I had written that I had not seen this choice coming, not in a million years. That’s an important element of the piece, but I decided that I didn’t need to state why I had never contemplated home schooling before. It really didn’t matter all that much that I had been a teacher, or that I came from a family of teachers. Two sentences gone. So far so good.
Then I moved on to the part that described the joyful and natural way in which my daughters were learning and thriving before they entered school. I took out some details, like their love of reading and making up their own intricate games. I simply wrote that they were joyfully learning through play and trusted that the readers could conjure up their own depiction of this. A whole paragraph removed right there, inviting the readers’ imaginations.
On to a paragraph about homework and the feeling of constantly plucking my children out of the moment to ‘do what school tells them they must do’. I deleted my tangent about first grade homework, but left in the poignant scene of my oldest daughter crying over her work.
Next, the small paragraph about the moment I made my decision is left alone, because it is brief and powerful. But I took out the large paragraph that followed, describing how nicely this decision worked out for us. The ending of my essay makes the outcome clear. I also cut out several paragraphs describing the experiences of each child, from elementary age through college. I decided that to say each one is on the path to a successful and fulfilling life, having not had a childhood full of formal lessons, is enough. It’s my whole point, really, and now the reader must trust me, the author, to sum up the outcome without a step by step account of the process.
When I was finished, I realized that I actually liked it better than before. What I had originally thought was essential, wasn’t. It was shorter, more concise and somehow a bit more powerful, in my opinion. I am satisfied. I did the best I could, and said the most I can say with the fewest number of words.
Living is art, and writing is art, and we get to pick what our bare bones are. When the essential gets buried in too much fluff, we have to go digging to find it. And when we strive to keep the essential front and center, dusted off and cared for, unencumbered by the extraneous, that is its own reward.