An old-school rule holds true for editing “intense, sensory recollections” in creative nonfiction
BY SARAH GERARD
“Show, don’t tell,” might as well be hanging above the doorway of every writing classroom. I can’t say I always agree with it—every rule must be broken occasionally—but it held true in the editing of “BFF,” my forthcoming chapbook to be published by Guillotine Press.
The piece is about my about my estranged best friend of 17 years: our formative, preteen and teenage years together and the very adult events that precipitated the end of our relationship. We were incredibly close, even inseparable. Remembering her, what arises is not a linear narrative—we met, then we were friends, then we weren’t—but intense, sensory recollections that tell an emotional story through a series of associations.
Writing it, I was very concerned with maintaining a balance of fault, if there had to be any. Though there is a lot of anger in the essay, I didn’t want to inadvertently lay all of the blame for the relationship’s end on my friend. So, in an essay otherwise driven by imagery, I began to insert conclusions—moments of knowing, or explanation. Especially at the essay’s conclusion, I spent a lot of time confessing to having had a hand in the relationship’s end, even owning up to certain lies, or moments of unfair judgment or neglect. While I think it was important, for my own sake, to have these realizations, I see now that they didn’t benefit the essay.
I showed “BFF” to three or four other writers before finally turning it into Sarah McCarry, Guillotine Press’s editor and publisher. Sarah saw what the other readers hadn’t: that the forced conclusions deflated the emotional impact of the imagery. That I wasn’t trusting my readers to draw their own conclusions, but instead was telling them what to think and feel. The very fine, incisive details were elegant and effective whereas the broad statements were very heavy-handed.
The true test was deleting the broader passages and reading the essay through from start to finish. Not only is all of the information still there in the details, but the essay accelerates now as it nears the climax, tracing the intensifying emotion, then slows again at the denouement. Before, the lengthy passages of explanation bogged down the essay at the climax, burying the sense of acceleration under a load of unnecessary text, and burying all of my best writing under poorly drawn apologies. (You can see some of my edits – which still aren’t finalized yet – in the featured image.)
All that was left afterward was some line editing. The essay is very lyrical and somewhat fragmented—like memory—so details of important events were at times confusing and needed to be clarified. At other times, if Sarah liked a particular image and felt we could dwell on it a bit longer, I elaborated for another line or so, or linked to it later in the essay. There is also a lot of repetition, which helps to create a satisfying rhythm but didn’t always serve the story; it felt like tripping instead of running. Especially toward the essay’s conclusion, I wanted give the feeling of smooth deceleration.
On Revision is a column by writers on revising and editing and includes a showcase of the author’s annotated drafts. The contributors discussed the selected work on an episode of Behind the Prose.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the novel Binary Star and the chapbook “Things I Told My Mother.” Her short works have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review Daily, Joyland, the Los Angeles Review of Books and other journals. She holds an MFA from The New School and works at BOMB Magazine.