This post is example #397 of my (possibly excessive) fondness for those moments when two similar ideas pass in front of my eyes. This time the ideas come from Willa Cather’s 1920 "On the Art of Fiction" essay and Sarah Manguso’s 3/18/2012 appearance on the “Other People” podcast.
Here’s “Other People” host Brad Listi interviewing Manguso:
LISTI: So, four years to get to the 100 pages that you wanted. But how many pages total did you write?
MANGUSO: … It’s very rare for me to cut and save a piece of text. Like, I’ll just cut it. It’ll just be gone. And I know that’s horrifying and bad and blah blah blah. But I’m very easily overwhelmed by too much content, and so I just think if I delete a bunch of pages and I really need them, then they’ll come back. I’ll write them again in some better way. Or maybe in the same way. Who knows? So I really have no idea how many pages I cut along the way to get to this sort of tolerable hundred. Which is too bad because I love it when … novelists say “Oh, I cut 800 pages from that book.” It’s so thrilling that it’s OK to do that. It was less than 800. I’ll just say that.
In another part of the interview, Manguso said:
I enjoy the process of distillation. I enjoy compression. It’s fun for me. And so it’s just this thing that I like to do, to try to see how few words I can use to make or to try to make the reader feel what I want the reader to feel.
And here’s Cather from nintety-some years ago:
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, “The Sower,” the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal.