Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

The Hired Girl

Laura Amy Schlitz

Writing. Without the Clutter.

Writing. Without the Clutter.
Christine Heppermann: Writing Workshop 60second Recap

Christine Heppermann's book of poetry for young adults, Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty, will be published by Greenwillow Books in September, 2014. The first volume of her upcoming adventure series for younger readers, co-authored with Ron Koertge, will be published by Greenwillow in September, 2015.

Writing Workshop: Writers on Writing | 60second RecapRecently, I’ve become a fan of the writer Lydia Davis. OK, “fan” may not be a strong enough word. Disciple? Groupie? I haven’t stood at intersections waiting for red lights so I can thrust copies of her books through the open car windows of startled motorists, but don’t think I haven’t considered it.

Though Ms. Davis has written a novel and translated French literary classics by Marcel Proust and Gustav Flaubert into English, she’s best known as a writer of short, short stories—stories so mini they sometimes consist of only one or two sentences.

An example:

Spring Spleen

I am happy the leaves are growing huge so quickly.
Soon they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child.

(from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: Stories by Lydia Davis. New York: Picador, 2002.)

How is THAT a story, you might ask?

Well, let’s take a look.

First Impressions Really Matter.

A good story starts with a good title. At first glance this title seems like nonsense—two words tossed together simply because of their alliteration. Yet a quick Googling of “spleen” reveals that it’s an organ in the body responsible for filtering blood. Filtering is what Davis’s narrator wants from the leaves, right? He or she wants them to filter out the unpleasantness next door.

Also, “spleen” is the root of “splenetic,” an adjective or noun referring to someone in a perpetually bad mood. It’s a pretty fair guess that the speaker in “Spring Spleen” is not, in general, a ray of sunshine. He or she only appreciates the coming of spring for its utility in minimizing annoyance. What a grump! Who’s the worse neighbor, really: the person with the screaming child, or the person with no apparent interest in or tolerance of the family living right next door?

Less is More. Big is Good.

Poisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann 60second Recap Writing Workshop

Cinderella, deconstructed: Poisoned Apples examines the influence of yesterday's fairy tales on today's teenage girls.

To me, the best thing about this and other Lydia Davis stories—many of which are longer, but none of which are long—is that they paint big pictures with few words.

It’s easy for a writer to get caught up in adding explanation or descriptive detail to a story or poem, but often more words just mean more clutter. When a poem I’m working on starts to resemble one of those yards filled with plastic flamingos and windsocks and bunny statues, I know it’s time to have a yard sale—to figure out what imagery and information is essential and get rid of the rest.

Don't Forget to Prune.

Leaving space is a sign of respect for the reader's intelligence. Lydia Davis doesn’t tell us why the neighbor’s child is screaming or whether the tree with the fast-growing leaves is a maple or a birch. She knows she doesn’t have to. She plants the seeds of a setting and characters in our minds and trusts us to imagine the rest.

This minimalism doesn’t mean she’s lazy. The hardest work I do as a writer is in the pruning. When I’m starting a poem, throwing a bunch of words on the page, I usually don’t really know what I want to say. Figuring that out, for me, is almost always a process of elimination. Sometimes I’ll spend hours crafting a single line, trying to get it exactly right. Sometimes I’ll thoughtfully, carefully shape a stanza, only to discover that it’s not necessary. It has to go!

I feel sad for it. But once it’s gone, the words that remain seem to grow larger and spread toward the sun.

Christine Heppermann is the author of the young adult poetry collection Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty (Greenwillow, September 2014) and, with Ron Koertge, the upcoming Backyard Witch early chapter book series (Greenwillow, Summer 2015). A long-time reviewer and columnist for The Horn Book Magazine, she currently reviews young adult literature for the The Chicago Tribune. Heppermann holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Hamline University. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley with her husband and two daughters.

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