What to Cut (and when to not)

Louisa Leontiades On Writing, Women Writing Memoir to Release Trauma

Oh it’s horrible. Horrible. Like cutting off a part of yourself. You have laid out your story, words and feelings that possibly that you have never shared with anyone else–maybe not even yourself. And now you have to make the cuts. If you’ve managed to write your ‘first draft’, I congratulate you. And yet first draft seems to me to be a misnomer because within my ‘first draft’ I’ve already gone over and over certain passages and it seems more like a seventeenth draft. Do I have to edit it more? The answer is always yes. Rewriting and editing is where the magic happens both in terms of the book and also in terms of catharsis.

Memoir writing for me happened in fits and starts. I kept diaries, I kept correspondence, letters and emails printed out on old computer paper under the bed. But the first time I wrote out some of my story was for a therapist who requested a summary of my experience. My ‘summary’ was twenty six pages long and at our next session he laughed, rejected it and asked me to write it in bullet points. His words felt as brutal as any editor who slashed red pen across my work and I never went back to see him. I couldn’t make any cuts until several years later. He was right of course, but I didn’t write it for him (my audience) I wrote it for me. Be conscious of this, because the first version will be for you (which is what is supposed to happen). But your audience is interested in how it makes them feel. It will become theirs, as you set it free.

I still have that writing on the hard drive of my computer, but very little of it has made it into my books (maybe it was tainted by his dismissal). Instead it has simply served as another aide memoire, along with the letters and scraps.

Each incident, each memory will feel precious to you but it may not be part of the story. It may be a part of a different story. For that reason, I would advise not cutting completely but cutting to a separate document. It is useful to create some kind of filing system which serves to store your memories and treat them with care so you don’t feel disrespected. Also, you may be able to use them for your next memoir! Only you can do this, because once you get someone else in to look at your work, they won’t be careful of your trauma. They can’t be, because their business is not therapy, their business is to ruthlessly cut the material of your life, and shape it into a tailored outfit. That’s a lot of discarded material.

Before you cut anything, I’m going to recommend what many, many authors recommend and tell you to wait. Waiting is hard. But the book needs to fade a little from your memory so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.  Some recommend waiting at least six weeks. And that’s hard to do, but worth it. What can you do in the meantime? Re-read some books on writing, re-read your favourite books from your favourite authors and see them in a new light. If you are an aspiring author with more books in you, then start on the next book. It’s a great distraction.

So what should you be cutting (or rewriting)? Anything that does not move the story forward, anything which seems slow. This is the reason you need fresh eyes, because without them you will be too attached to what you have just written. It’s like a child, in a manner of speaking. Right after birth, you are smack in the middle of attachment. A few years down the line, you start to see them as a separate person! Thus when you re-read what you’ve written after a while, you may find that there are places where even you put your story down because it lags. These are the first passages to examine.

In my first writing I also wrote my thoughts about life and the world in general. I’m not sure why apart from that no one had ever bothered to listen to what I had to say. They had nothing to do with the story, they were simply asides. Were they interesting to anyone else? It’s hardly relevant, because they had nothing to do with the story. Cut them, and save them somewhere else. What if they do have to do with the story?

In many cases where my writing lags, I have favoured rewriting passages as opposed to cutting them entirely. Especially if I believe that specific scenes could be used to advance the story. In many instances I have rewritten them to move them further away from the ‘what actually happened’ truth, by externalizing what were previously internal reflections–those that occurred then AND now, either in re-created dialogue or as reflections that have occurred in hindsight. I have exposed the deeper emotional truth more by adding perspective and making my memories more readable for my audience.

As much as it pains me to do so, I’m going to include my very first draft of a passage that I wrote in my diary versus its final edited form. It pains me because letting you see what I wrote in all its shittiness, makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. And yet… if it helps you see just how bad the first version was, and gives you courage to carry on then it will be worth it.

First version (written 2001)

At a later point in our conversation, Jack gets up he says to go and offer a cigarette to someone standing outside the party – Raphael – a beach seller whom he has met the previous week. “What kind of cigarette?” I ask winking (although my winking tends to be ineffectually rather like blinking or even squinting, because it is so sunny)  “Oh no – a normal one – for now anyway” says Jack. And from this I happily gather that we will be having a joint later that day. After the party has finished and the remaining drunken British have made their way back to the respective hotel pools to continue killing their brain cells at the pool bars, Jack, Raphael, Bobby (another beach seller) and I sit on the sand and – the way you do while smoking – start to talk about life, the universe and everything. We establish a common vision of every facet of life around us being connected on their various planes of existence by a unique force and that although the force was mutating around us, it was happening in such a way that a perfect, harmonious balance was being kept. (Are we stoned yet?) It is a concept extremely easy to believe with the heat almost visibly billowing around us and the air and ground twitching to the song of tree frogs while the regular rhythm of the waves accompany it like a metronome. Indeed it is nature’s great orchestra of creatures doing the dance of life around me and before my eyes as surely and faultlessly as the planets’ inexorable steps around the solar system.  I explain to them how I have reflected on the dichotomy of good and evil; I compare the connected force in all living things to tines on a fork, which are part of the same fork but at the same time independent of the others, thus we are all part of the same spirit. I ponder on the fact that the flesh is the only part of us that could sin or be tempted to sin, as the spirit is supposedly pure, part of God and strives for higher ideals. I conclude that the sins of the flesh can suffocate the natural holy inclinations of the spirit and that therefore this is a case of evil suffocating the good. If the good becomes prevalent the spirit would start to become more evident and non earthly. So it is that we are a mixture of good and evil, flesh and spirit. I am very stoned but think I am being very intelligent. I tell myself that some of the best thoughts come out of drug-induced hazes. Look what an enlightened fellow Coleridge was and he was always on opium.

What a load of rubbish! Amid the many, many faults in writing of this passage, some things might jump out at you.

  • It’s a pure memory dump
  • It’s concerned with random, pompous thoughts in my own head
  • It doesn’t advance the story or characterization
  • It has several break offs in brackets
  • It uses complex/pretentious language to show off instead of more precise language
  • It has virtually no dialogue

Final version (published 2016)

Sometime later, Jack got up to offer a cigarette to someone standing outside the party. It was Raphael of the gleaming body and hidden treasures.

‘And what kind of cigarette would that be?’ I asked, two Malibus down and subtle as a brick. I winked surreptitiously but rather ineffectually, since the sun meant my winking was actually the same thing as blinking.

‘Nothing like that,’ he said. ‘Not all musicians are stoners, you know.’ I blushed once more and closed my eyes in shame. Gus was on my shoulder, reminding me that I couldn’t be trusted to be appropriate. Then Jack giggled.

‘Did I scare you?’ he asked. ‘I was joking. Raphael and I are great mates. But we’re discreet, and a hotel party’s not the place. We’ll have a party of our own later if you want.’ He was looking at me looking at him and blocking the sun so that the light shone around him like a solar eclipse. As he walked away, I closed my eyes and lay back in the sand, seeing Jack-shaped light impressions in my mind.

An hour later the party had finished, and the remaining drunken Brits had made their way back to their respective hotel pools to continue killing their brain cells at the pool bars. But Jack, Raphael and I had found another way to damage ourselves. One that proved extremely relaxing and perfectly in keeping with the environment. One that made us think we were philosophers. One that made us know we were geniuses.

‘Leh we fire one,’ said Raphael, as if he were striking the bush on Sinai, and we all inhaled the magic of weed.

The sun blazed. We connected on unimagined planes of existence bound by a unique, stable, yet mutating force. Raphael played the drums, and we hummed to the perfect, harmonious balance that was kept in the universe. The heat visibly billowed around us, and the air and ground twitched to the song of tree frogs while the regular rhythm of the waves accompanied it like a metronome. It felt like nature’s great orchestra of life stepping to a heartbeat.

‘I’ve come to realise that there can be no good without evil,’ I slurred into the pale-blue sky. How could it be so pale and so deep at the same time, I wondered. I was very stoned but thought I was being a very intelligent guru-type person. ‘There can be no light without dark.’

Raphael drawled, ‘Sho der’s natural opposites, light and dark. Summer and winter. But good an’ bad dey human tings. We create dem to live togeder. We copy mamma nature. Maybe it was fine, til we forgot we were only copy and believe dat our own inventions made us God.’

‘Maybe we are God,’ I said randomly. ‘If we are all like tines on a fork and the entire fork is God, then how can we not be part of God?’

Raphael reached for my hand, I reached for Jack’s and he reached for Raphael’s. And we sat in a circle, believing we were all part of the same spirit.

What can I say about this passage? I still see many faults, remember the post on ‘help! my memoir is never good enough‘. The rewriting may never be finished. It isn’t perfect, yet the book is published, I let it go and moved on to process other experiences. You will also see that it is, for want of a better word, fictionalized (see the post ‘on stretching the truth‘). The actual dialogue was similar I know. But there’s no way I could remember the entire conversation nor the beach sellers accurately when I did the first rewrite (2006). So why did I decide to rewrite it the way I did it?

Firstly, the scene needed dialogue to bring it to life. It needed to come out of my head. Instead of being simply reflection, it needed action and reaction–whether or not I could remember it. Secondly I looked deeper onto why that memory was so important to me and the reason was not because I got stoned. The reason was Raphael and what he represented. Raphael was the personification of the life I wanted, relaxed, happy, and accepting as opposed to the life I had, anxious, mindless and trapped in an abusive relationship. It was my impression in hindsight that he was the symbol and cipher to the entire holiday in Barbados. (His name wasn’t Raphael by the way, but the name of an angel was in keeping with my emotional truth, and since a memoirist is obliged in many cases to change names to protect identity, I chose this one. Raphael is the angel of healing.)

One thing that’s always helped me to ‘re-create’ scenes and dialogue is that whilst I may not remember exactly what was said, I remember the impressions or emotions I felt. I remember for example, thinking that I’d tapped into a higher truth(!), I remember pontificating about ‘forks’, I remember being in awe of the local beach sellers who had already an innate sort of wisdom in my mind. I remember they spoke in bajan english. I used those emotional–rather than factual–memories to re-create a persona of Raphael with whom I had a conversation. And I cut out ‘Bobby’ who added nothing to the scene.

Why does this advance the story? On the surface it does not, rather it advances the characterisation and setting. Yet one of the themes of the book is the idea that in an abusive relationship you are mindlessly asleep, dead but walking. And the book describes the process of awakening. This was key part of it.