crappin' on about the inconsequential, man bites dog, the writing process

Throwing it all away

In the lead-up to the publication of his new book, The Ghost Poetry Project, Nathan Curnow has been posting a few poems that failed to make it into the final manuscript.

I’m curious about the tension between the decision to take things out and then the decision to in some ways undo that decision by including them as supplementary material elsewhere.

One argument says that audiences love to see the work in process and that drafts/excisions are a great way to give them what they want. And then there’s the need for new material to post online – the accepted wisdom of the rapacity of internet users that drives bloggers to post as often as they possibly can; as often as time and content creation capacity allows. It can be tough to come up with new stuff all the time, so why not fill that void with some words you already had lying around the place?

It’s instinctive to place a high value on your own writing. After all, who better than you understands the effort that goes into every word, how much of a struggle it is to fill those blank spaces? It can be heartbreaking to see those hard-won words left ignored in the pile of deletions, never to grace the page or screen. Well, these days you can throw it all up online, as much as you can find. No word need ever go unpublished again.

The counterargument to all this says that you should stick by your guns, and if something is not included in the final product it’s out for good. I’m a subscriber to the argument that says that once you’ve finished the first draft of a short story, you should always delete the first paragraph to eliminate the bits where you were just warming up, and cut to the part where you’ve hit your storytelling stride. It’s a principle that I think can be applied to all forms of writing.

Point being: there’s usually always some fat to be trimmed.

The infinite page capacity of blogs reminds me of the early days of CDs. With their 70+ minutes of capacity they allowed artists to release longer albums than ever before, but this seemed to just encourage largesse in some bands. The extra room on CDs seemed to only get filled with more filler tracks and make the experience of sitting through an entire album more of a watch-checking chore than a joy.

Another comparison that comes to mind is the bloated corpse of the director’s cut, these days reanimated as bonus material on DVDs. For every Apocalypse NOW Redux or restored Blade Runner there are many more seven-hour versions of Until the End of the World or pointless revisionings of E.T. the Extraterrestrial. It’s a rare director’s commentary track that I don’t turn off after 10 minutes because of either information overload that distracts me from watching the movie, or an endless stream of useless infodump prattle about lighting technicians and costume designers.

It’s hard to throw any of your own creations away, I know. They’re your babies, after all. I have a folder on my laptop where I keep all of the poems that I like, but that I don’t think are ever going to be good enough for publication. They’re things I’ve written for friends and lovers, personal things, slight things – not really the kind of thing the general public either needs or wants to read.

But at the same time I’ve tried to breathe life into my remnants, too. On an earlier website of mine I posted four chunks that had been cut out of the final manuscript of Man Bites Dog, and the temptation still rears its head every now and then to submit those “closed for business” poems for publication or put them on a blog somewhere.

Of course cutting for strength is one thing, and cutting for length is another. But once the cut is made, for whatever reason, is it better to respect the decision to make that cut, and move on to creating new work, or to sift through the remnants of what’s already been made?

For me the challenge has always been to resist the urge to keep playing with the words that already exist, to put aside the bits and pieces that have been knocked back on multiple occasions, that have been chopped out for whatever reason, and to knuckle down and do the hard work that needs to be done in order to create something brand new.

2 thoughts on “Throwing it all away”

  1. Interesting points, Adam! I have bits I left out of my manuscript in the end, sometimes not because they weren’t good, but because they simply didn’t fit the overall narrative. (And plenty that was just pure crap, of course.) I didn’t really think about posting them online as extras – they were just gone… but then, I think poetry and short stories lends itself to that kind of exercise more than long-form narrative.

    As far as posting that kind of content online or elsewhere, I don’t have a problem with it. Most writers I know are compulsive recyclers, and having a blog with a fan base is the ideal way to ‘recycle’ those things. For me, posting stuff online isn’t about giving away the dregs or being desperate for content – if I were to do something like that (and now I think I might, as an exercise!) I would reimagine/rework the cut bits for its new intended audience.

    Great post :)

  2. hey. i find when i cut most things manage to find their way back i a different form … so I don’t ever really lose anything … I wouldn’t go crazy posting deleted scenes for that reason … but also because less is more and I already have enough crap floating around on the internet for gawd knows how long… I spose it’s a nice way of having archives without having big boxes of dead matter blocking up your crawl space…

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