the parts that get left behind


I’ve been thinking about all the stuff that gets cut away from stories. Behind everything we see published are these ghost drafts, words and sentences that will never be read that lurk on our hard drives or in notebooks. Obviously we love these ghost drafts at draft, and we’re always looking to get our hands on particularly interesting passages.

Enter writer Jill Talbot, who is working on an anthology that unearths these murdered darlings and gives them a place to live again. She calls it “lost paragraphs,” and I like the sound of this, that somehow these are wayward words that are finally finding a home. She writes, “The Lost Paragraphs will not only highlight the omission process in editing. It will also complicate genre by placing lost paragraphs in a series to create a found narrative from both fiction and nonfiction works.” Cool, right? She’s accepting submissions until May 1, so consider sending her something interesting. She’s already received submissions from the likes of Judith Kitchen, Lee Martin, Patrick Madden, Ryan Van Meter, David Abrams, Adam Braver, Karen Brown, Pam Houston, and Lydia Netzer.

Jill has also shared with us some lost paragraphs by Dinty Moore and  Charles Blackstone that will be included in her forthcoming book. I think these would be particularly helpful to use in a classroom unit on revision to show students that even if it’s good writing, it might need to be cut. The author’s here talk about pacing and energy, important considerations the beginning writers might not yet have on their radars.

Here’s the first, from Brevity editor Dinty Moore.

Original Source:  “Of Striped Food and Polar Bears,” Triquarterly, January 2013

Paragraph (and trailing few lines):
My friends have adjusted their own intake in diverse ways. I have strict vegetarian friends who avoid meat, of course, but also fish, eggs, dairy products, and honey. A few folks in my circle are vegans, eating the strict vegetarian diet while also dodging animal byproducts such as leather, wool, and silk. I have vegetarian friends who enjoy eggs, milk, and cheese, because no animal is slaughtered to produce these tasty nutriments. (One could argue, if one were argumentative, that a modern dairy cow lives a pretty crappy life, strapped to that dystopian machine half the morning, but that’s another story.)  I have vegetarian friends who eat pepperoni, “because it’s not pizza without pepperoni, and anyway, that stuff isn’t meat, it’s processed beyond recognition.”

We all make our rationalizations, don’t we?

Here are mine:

  • My zodiac sign is Leo, the lion.  We eat zebra.
  • I eat striped cookies, don’t I?

Reason for omission: I came to the realization that the energy of the essay dipped here (very near the old ending) and that it was probably because I was telling the reader what most readers already new.  I wasn’t saying anything new or interesting about vegetarianism.  Cutting this led me to finally understand that this essay wasn’t even about vegetarianism, or eating meat, but about the exotic, and how our food choices change as the globe shrinks.  The ending three or four pages changed considerably as a result.

And from Charles Blackstone.

Original Source: Vintage Attraction, Pegasus Books, 2013.

Paragraph:  The only thing that could stop the spinning and ward off future vomit installments—he also knew from experience—was to close his eyes. Though he usually had no problem driving successfully when he was drunk, after he’d start to puke, everything became uncertain, precarious, and he knew better than to try to take off like this, at least until the waves beneath his chest stopped thrashing quite so emphatically. When he opened his eyes after what felt like no longer than a ten minutes’ duration—driven to do so by a mysterious cold wind that he at first mistook to be the sweat that often succeeded a prodigious amount of dinnerless-drinking hurling—he observed with a start that his Mustang had been broken into. Both his and his passenger’s door were flung wide open and there was a gaping, roughly pillaged hole where the cassette deck used to be. It was astonishing that someone or a couple of someones were able to enter the car and wreak this havoc while he slept, but equally astounding, if not more so, was that those criminally inclined—and in active theft engagement—would go to such trouble to steal a worthless piece of antediluvian electronic equipment. His true panic was when he wasn’t certain about the safety of his messenger bag. Within that Timbuk2, along with irreplaceable attendance rosters and drafts of graded papers, was his Rhodia notebook, in which he’d jot, from time to time, particularly amusing or otherwise noteworthy restaurant concepts. If the notebook were gone, he didn’t stand a chance of ever being able to recreate any of it, which meant he’d never be able to create any of it. He rushed out of the car and around to the trunk. He opened it and found that, to his tremendous relief, his bag was safe, and had been ignored by his burglar. (And it couldn’t have possibly been more than one guy, he reasoned now, if the bandit had been in the company of anyone else, a thug, a prostitute, a wayward drunk English professor, anybody, that other individual would have most certainly ridiculed the idea of stealing a cassette deck—only a moron working on his own could possibly have effected such a pointless crime.) With fingers that possessed little tactile sensation, he flipped to his favorite entries over the past four years, just to quiet his trembling heart: Que Pasta? Mexican Italian. For the Hitchcock fan with a predilection for overly salty meats: Pork by Porkwest, where even the menu comes wrapped in bacon. Rawwwwr: Hipster vegan, chic raw foods, Howard Dean mascot. Sushi bar-meets-strip club: Pandora’s Bento Box. He wouldn’t have suspected the notebook to be a prime target, but what idiots, these criminals, not even bothering to expend the minimal effort required to steal the green iPod stowed in the front pocket of the Timbuk2, which bore a technology that postdated the cassette deck’s by a good twenty years or more.

Reason for omission: The draft from which this paragraph came was about 41% longer than it needed to be, should have been, ended up being. The scene from which this paragraph comes, along with many other scenes throughout, was in need of serious compression. Hapworth still falls asleep in his car and wakes up there, but gone are the incidents and apprehending that the pace and plot simply didn’t have time or energy to hold.

Leave a Reply