Leave This Part Out

Right now I’m reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. It’s powerful and vivid, and I’m trying to go slowly rather than racing through it like I usually do with novels.

The thing that has struck me most about this book is what’s not in it.

Vuong has made a whole art form of leaving things out — elision, if you’d like the technical term.

This technique has an intense but subtle impact: it forces you to fill in the gaps. It makes the writing atmospheric and haunting, and echoes the irregularity of memory.

It’s a masterful reminder, this book, that not every detail belongs in every piece of writing. This is true in private writing or journalling just as much as it is in public writing.

When you’re writing on a theme or trying to get to the heart of an issue, part of the process is to examine every element to make sure it adds something to the whole.

I always think of it as holding each detail up to a light, turning it this way and that, to see if it contains a part of what you’re seeking.

Maybe it’s ignoring the impulse in your brain to blame somebody else for a problem you’re experiencing, leaving out the cheap shot that would absolve you from digging any further into uncomfortable territory.

Maybe it’s skipping over the mundane details of an interaction, even though you have a perfectly poetic way to describe them.

Maybe it’s discounting the one exception in a pattern of someone’s behaviour, choosing to see their true nature by the great volume of their actions.

Elision is a very difficult skill to master.

It takes a long time to learn to weight our experiences in order to understand which moments truly matter. It takes a lot of practice — and the practice never ends — to become objective enough to see what doesn’t belong.

But learning to cut away the parts that don’t add to the whole creates an illuminating kind of freedom. It reveals the heart of your writing, the heart of your life.

So the next time you sit down to write, ask yourself: what doesn’t belong here? What can I let go?