Several weeks ago, my class was discussing a short-short story that I love, and that I love to use in classes for its intense compactness: “Children of Strikers,” by Fred Chappell. It’s not online, but it’s about two poor kids, squabbling as they walk along a river located in a mill town. When the girl says she’s found a baby’s foot on the ground, and the boy becomes excited with the horrific possibilities of what may have happened. The girl then admits that it’s a doll’s foot, and as they examine it, we sense the true difficulties and challenges of their lives in this grim milieu.
Here’s a paragraph from the introduction to Chappell’s book, Moments of Light, written by Annie Dillard:
“In 'Children of Strikers,' Chappell makes manifest, vividly and subtly, the real and grave nature of human suffering. This is a brilliant story whose narrative gradually uncovers its own locus. We wake, as the children wake, to the import of what they have found by the roadside; but we know, as they do not, what it means about the world. The many layers of this story separate the reader from pain while forcing him, unaware, to seek it out at the center of the narrative riddle, and forcing him to find it, accidentally as it were, at the center of human experience.”
Anyway…a great story, and the class had a good discussion about it. We strayed into wondering how the author had written such a tight piece: was it one of those perfect vision gift stories that flows out (that’s certainly how it reads)? Or, someone suggested, might it be a story that was originally 30 pages, distilled down to these four pages?
I don’t know—Mr. Chappell, I’m happy to hear the story behind the story!—but personally, I was taken with the idea that this was a story of distillation. As hard as that is to write, it’s more achievable than the perfect vision gift story. Combine this line of thinking with a later class we had that focused on revision techniques—and a long conversation about Stephen King’s proclamation from On Writing that the second draft equals the first draft minus 10 percent: I decided to go back to some of my older, unpublished stories to see if I could chop them by half and distill them down to some newer, more intense essence.
The jury’s still out on whether I could do all that, but I must say that the first story I tackled ended up getting slashed by 2372 words (that’s 44 percent, Mr. King!). I ditched an extended metaphor that I had been too attached too earlier that now seemed obviously forced and that had overtaken the story. The piece is tighter and more intense without it. In a few weeks I’ll reread it and see if I notice any gaping holes or missing background, but I rather think I won’t. As I like to say, Readers like to see what’s happening, not what already happened.
It helped in this case that I wanted to enter the piece in a contest that had a specific word length, so I suggest making a numeric goal, somewhere around half to a third of the word count, and that way you’ll have something to think about when you find yourself getting too attached to the words.
I’m partway through another piece, and there’s something absolutely empowering about taking that red pen and slashing through words, sentences, and paragraphs. It’s humbling to see that all these polished words are unnecessary. It’s like cleaning a closet and discovering underneath all that clutter, that pair of boots that you always loved but had forgotten about.
I highly recommend this exercise. It’s addictively satisfying. Who knows? By the time I’m done with this, I may even manage to cut something down into a haiku.