Cut to Bleed
January 8, 2018 § 48 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Find the sentence where the essay turns glorious or cruel. Make that the beginning. Imagine running a race, that instant the starting gun cracks, the moment later when you reach full speed. Start your essay there, at a full sprint.
Sometimes the best line arrives at the end. Maybe start there. Maybe rearrange the furniture. Pick that powerful last paragraph up and move it to the start. You do not have to kill all your darlings. Sometimes they just need to be shifted to move us.
Find the word that says everything you mean. Mean it.
By the end, everything might be moving so fast, you fear you will fall. Take that. Fall. Collapse right into the reader.
If, at the end of your walk, you picked up a shell before turning for home, end with the shell, not the walk off the beach. Instead of ending on an idea, choose concrete. Give them the sky visible through the window of my mother’s hospital room. The way your father’s last breaths came so far apart that you looked up from rereading the same paragraph about Restoration ceilings and had to tell him it was okay to leave. The smell of wet wool. Pussy willows. The way your nose dripped until it ran into your open mouth.
Almost always what needs to be chopped from a personal essay is the abstract. The idea. What people warned us against: the telling. What you want is to plant a mote into the eye of your reader, something that will stick and nag. The iridescent nacre wafer held in your palm while the ocean clears her throat. The splinter of a scene.
Beautiful language can do that too. Metaphor wraps it up in concrete. The fact of tears is far less important than the impulse on the part of the reader to cry. Telling about emotion does not touch. What you do makes others feel. Make your reader gasp.
I like to call it “hack’n’slash.” For brevity’s sake, shorten each paragraph by a line; cut the weakest sentence in each paragraph; make a single sentence from two; annotate each paragraph & do a word search for repetition (that you can cut); cut all the abstract and focus on the concrete (yes, I said that before); cut the introduction, the conclusion, cut the weakest paragraph in your paper; cut them all.
Often the ending is mere summing up, because that is what we have learned to do in conclusion. Yes, that is correct, but also weak outside an academic essay. Since you must leave, leave readers something. The last line, the very end, should contain a sensory detail—the telling visual. As if you could rip readers’ hearts, or slap them, or kiss the corner of their mouth.
Cut all the words that do not make you bleed as a writer. Carve so close your hands shake holding the knife. Then make it shorter. Do that again. Do it. Cut.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned awards and publications, including three essays and four poems published in 2017. She always hopes to do better.