Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Pruning

I have always had very bad luck with basil. Perhaps more honestly, I ought to say that basil plants have always had very bad luck with me, as they are the ones that end up withered and dead in my kitchen. Sometimes up to three plants in a summer. A short, British summer.

Until this year. This year I bought a little basil plant at my local supermarket and I now have a great, big basil bush. So enormous is this horticultural triumph that it garners admiration from all who visit our flat and our neighbours are complaining that it's blocking their light. Unfortunately, after a good three months of delightful growth, it appears to have aphids. Boo. Hiss.

Aphids are little bugs that love to feed on soft plants. They decimated my parsley this spring and although I got rid of them ages ago and they were outside then, they now appear to have migrated indoors to the most magnificent basil plant this side of the Thames. I caught them early, though, and I think I have them on their last exoskeleton. They have, however, already done some damage. I know in my little pseudo-gardener's heart that pruning is the right thing to do. Pruning the weakened stalks will let the plant put its energy into growing new, strong stalks that will be better able to resist aphids in the future. But my basil and I have worked so hard to get it to where it is. I worry that it will never regain its former glory.

Why all this about a basil plant? Well, because it's a perfect analogy for writing. Honest, it is.

The basil in all its wilty glory
When I was doing my MFA, I brought a draft of a poem into class one evening and felt all right about it. I thought that it might actually be okay. Fine, in all honesty, I thought it might be good. I handed copies to the class and then read it out. Nobody groaned or looked ill and I thought, I might be right. This one might actually be good. My tutor took his pen and slashed through the first stanza. Gone. He paused for a moment, tapped his pen against his lower lip and then crossed out two more stanzas and several lines, leaving less than a third of my masterpiece unscathed. You know, he said. There is actually a good poem in here.

Jump to a meeting with my MFA dissertation supervisor. The story is good but you need to cut. A lot. Once your characters start talking, everything moves along really well. You've just got to get out of their way.

Sensing a theme here? Yup. Cutting.

For ages, I thought it was only me. Only me who over-wrote. Only me who got in the way of characters who obviously know more about storytelling than I do. Only me needed to go back and cut to find the good (better?) writing. I have a very talented friend who once described her writing process as painting a picture: first, she sketches the outline and then she goes back and paints on layer after layer of additional words. Descriptions, actions, characters, are all built up layer by layer.

If I layered on top of my first draft, there'd be so much paint that the final painting would be a health and environmental hazard. It may not seem like it, but a lot gets cut from each of these blog posts before I publish them! (Can I do without that last sentence? Probably. This parenthetical? Definitely.)

It turns out, however, that I am in very good company. In fact, when I teach, cutting is one of two major edits that I harp on about *all* the time. I say things like, I'd think about cutting that entire first stanza and Try cutting a few lines so you can smush these two stanzas into one and This dialogue will really work if you cut most of it. In many of the draft poems that I see, cutting the extraneous words, the explanations, the abstract opining reveals what could be a good poem in there.

Many writers - particularly in the academic setting - can become frightened of or beholden to the almighty word count. This can lead us to saving what ought not to be saved. So I advise you: go forth and prune. It's not the size of your basil, it's the health of the plant.
 
And, yes, my tutor was right about the poem. I cut most of it, edited the bloodied remains and it turns out that it was good enough for publication.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. I'm still reluctant, but I've got a plant to prune.

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