What to Leave Out
August 19, 2021 § 25 Comments
By Laurie Easter
I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my forthcoming essay collection, All the Leavings, by author Sonja Livingston (The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion) for her YouTube interview series “The Memoir Café.” Being live interviewed was challenging because, like many people, I always think of a better answer after the fact.
The question Sonja asked that I later obsessed over was “How did you decide what to write about and what not to write about?” The first part of this question was fairly easy to answer, but the second part—how I decide what not to write about—was the part that bothered me for days. Perhaps this is because what we leave out of our writing is not something generally discussed.
Initially, I said that if something doesn’t serve the narrative, then it gets cut (or possibly it was never included in the first place). But I am an essayist who does not write in a strictly narrative form. Often, my essays are lyric—hermit crab, braided, mosaic—pieces that defy standard narrative form, so “it doesn’t serve the narrative,” while applicable some of the time, does not always apply. And in these lyric essay styles, gaps and spaces—what is left out—can be integral to the formation of connections made by the reader.
Sometimes the choice of what to leave out is about protecting someone’s privacy. Inevitably, when we write creative nonfiction, we cannot tell our own story without sharing parts of someone else’s. This can be tricky and requires careful consideration.
While copyediting my book, I ended up cutting two brief scenes that, in fact, did enrich the narrative. One of the scenes depicted a circle of people at the local alternative community school the day after a teenage boy had taken his life. The scene described the mother of the boy—her grief-stricken staccato movements within the circle—and shared details like the smudging of sage and a parent singing a Native American chant. To avoid any misconstruing of cultural appropriation (the singer is of Native American descent and many in the community are practicing members of the Native American Church) and to protect the mother of the boy, I cut this scene. My reasons: to protect privacy and to avoid a potential misunderstanding without including an awkward sentence about how the singer of the chant was indeed of Native descent.
Eventually, I told Sonja that for me, the decision of what not to include is often intuitive. This answer might seem without real substance, but it is in fact a huge part of how I work as a writer. I trust my gut, go with my instincts.
After the interview, I realized I could have talked about how when my publisher sent my manuscript out for peer review, one reviewer said they wished to know more about my relationship with my husband and suggested I expand the manuscript to focus more on our marriage. In the peer review process for a university press, if the reviews come back positive, recommending publication, the author writes a response to the press, addressing the reviewers’ comments and detailing what changes will be made. This left me with a conundrum: do I heed this reviewer’s suggestions?
What I felt strong and clear, what my gut was telling me, was that the book was not about our marriage. Our relationship was threaded into the manuscript, but it was not the main theme, and I did not want to restructure the manuscript to focus on that. That was not my intention for the book.
If I could go back and revise my answer to Sonja, after having the time to
obsess think about it, Intuition + Intention is how I decide what to leave out. Is it my intention to expose a grieving mother at her most vulnerable? Is it my intention for readers to potentially misconstrue a situation and perceive it as cultural appropriation? Is it my intention to write a memoir about my marriage or is this essay collection about the rugged terrain of the human heart, what it means to experience love and loss or the potential of losing? When I ask, what is my intention? and I listen to my intuition, that’s how I know what to leave out.
Laurie Easter’s debut essay collection, All the Leavings, is forthcoming from Oregon State University Press in October 2021 (and can be pre-ordered now). Her essays have been published in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, Hippocampus Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree, among others,and are forthcoming in Brevity and A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays. She lives and writes from an off-grid cabin in the woods of southern Oregon. For more, visit laurieeaster.com.
[…] What to Leave Out […]
Terrific read! TY. I plan to reblog this for Longridge Review. It will be so helpful to our essayists.
Thank you for reblogging, Elizabeth, and for your kind words all around!
Thank you–I so appreciate your taking the time to reflect on what you did and did not say during the interview. The equation you offer to sum up the response you would have liked to have given is at the same time simple and complex, layered. Many thanks for this!
Thank you so much! I really appreciate you reading. It was something I couldn’t stop thinking about. I’m so glad I followed through on writing about it!
[…] to Leave Out” by Laurie Easter, is re-blogged from BREVITY’S Nonfiction Blog. Click here to read the full original post. Don’t miss the Sonja Livingston (The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion) […]
This is a very good way to think about what to include and what to cut.
Thank you so much, Vickie!
The answer came, and it wasn’t too late for us. Thank you.
Yes, the answer did come, after a lot of obsessing over it! Thank you for reading.
What we don’t say, or write, is often as important as what we do. You have nailed it perfectly. Thanks!
Thank you so much, Gary!
Laurie! Thanks for making clear such a complicated topic!
Judith! Thank you! ❤️
What to leave out is always important. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you for reading!
What a wonderful account of how you decide what to leave out from a story. Way to go, Laurie! Good luck with the book launch this October.
Thank you so much, Jennie! I so appreciate that.
Your metric — is it my intention?– is very helpful. As a writer working on a memoir, I used to be the recipient of suggestions from other members of the writing group I belonged to along those same lines. “I’d like to know more about ….” the critique would begin. Sometimes the suggestions were very valuable, but at other times they just reflected the interests of that particular person, or would have changed the narrative arc of my project. What they did do, though, was help me to clarify what my intention truly was. In that sense, intention is intuition made clearer.
Yes, exactly. I think it’s a reframing of what we perceive as valuable feedback. It doesn’t always mean we are going to incorporate the suggestion. But it is so clarifying to really focus in on what the intention is. Of course some pieces don’t start out with a specific intention or they take awhile to formulate. I’m so glad to hear this is helpful. Thanks for reading!
Wonderful! I love the way an honest and good conversation can keep going even after the talking has ended. Best of luck with that beautiful book, Laurie!
Thanks, Sonja. Yes, and the conversation is continuing!
Thanks for this. Wish I knew you!
Thanks for reading, Suzanne! And nice to meet you!
Reblogged this on Laurie Easter and commented:
I’m a bit behind, seeing as this posted a few weeks ago, but better late than never, right?