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One of the hardest tasks a musician, writer or artist has happens in the third stage of the creative process. It requires one to edit your ideas, feelings and discoveries. Sometimes it means you throw out some beautiful stuff in order to simplify and make your message more easily understood. Often a thought is strong enough to stand on its own but gets in the way of telling your story.

Editing your work asks your listener or reader to fill in the blanks and gets them more involved. The longer an artist works at their craft the better they are at editing. I am aware of the art of editing when I hear a master of the piano like Charles Boles play a ballad. When I paint I sometimes get too close to the  canvas and create a great bit of painting but it is out of scale and out it goes. The great John Singer Sargent wiped whole canvases away and started over and he never painted anything bad, he only somtimes did terrific stuff that was inappropriate to his subject.


Greening is what editing when writing for publication is often called. This phrase originated when editors used a green marker to indicated what copy needed to be cut to fit the column length. It took young writers a while to get used to having to having their beautiful words chopped out of their prose. John McPhee wrote about his experiences with he New Yorker magazine.


Choosing what to leave out.

By John McPhee

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more. Many, if not most, of my projects have begun as ideas for The New Yorkersection called The Talk of the Town, and many of them have grown to greater length. In the nineteen-seventies, observing the trials of an experimental aircraft, I intended at first to tell the story in a thousand words, but the tests and trials increased in number, changed, went on for years; a rich stream of characters happened through the scene; and the unfolding story had a natural structure analogous to a dramatic plot. The ultimate piece ran at fifty-five thousand words in three consecutive issues of the magazine. “Oranges,” seven years earlier, had grown in the same way, but my aptitude for selection needed growing, too. Bingham, after restoring much of what he had cut (and suggesting to Shawn that what we were doing made sense), insisted that substantial amounts of text remain down and out. Even I could see that for magazine purposes he was right. Four or five months later, as the piece was being prepared for publication as a book, I asked my close friend Mr. Bingham to help me choose from the original manuscript what else to restore, and what not to restore, to the text. In other words, the library at the Citrus Experiment Station had beguiled me so much—not to mention the citrus scientists, the growers, the rich kings of juice concentration—that I lost the advantage of what is left out.

Among the three or four dozen pieces that Woody Allen has contributed to The New Yorker, the first one seemed to his editor, Roger Angell, to contain an overabundance of funny lines. He told Allen that even if the jokes were individually hilarious they tended cumulatively to diminish the net effect. He said he thought the humor would be improved if Allen were to leave some of them out.

Sculptors address the deletion of material in their own analogous way. Michelangelo: “The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows.” Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Michelangelo, loosely, as we can imagine him with six tons of Carrara marble, a mallet, a point chisel, a pitching tool, a tooth chisel, a claw chisel, rasps, rifflers, and a bush hammer: “I’m just taking away what doesn’t belong there.”

And inevitably we have come to Ernest Hemingway and the tip of the iceberg—or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

 In other words:

There are known knowns—there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Yes, the influence of Ernest Hemingway evidently extended to the Pentagon.

Now General Eisenhower and I were alone in his studio. What on earth to say—with those five stars in pentimento on his shoulders, me a nineteen-year-old college student. The problem was more his than mine, but for him it was not a problem. He began to talk about the red-checked tablecloth and bowl of fruit. He said that when he was growing up in Abilene, Kansas, his world was symbolized by tablecloths just like this one, and that was why this current project meant so much to him. The still-life was well along—the apples, plums, and pears deftly drawn and highlighted. Pretty much tongue-tied until now, at last I had something to ask. Despite the painting’s advanced stage, it did not include the grapes.

I said, “Why have you left out the grapes?”

Ike said, “Because they’re too Goddamned hard to paint.” ♦



I am still in Provence, France where we are barraged by exceptional images. This is a place where hundreds of memorable moments are thrown at you every day. It is a dry climate with a steady stream of cool air that is funneled down through the Rhone valley by the Mistral winds coming from the Alps. When one steps out of the sun and in to the shade you feel this cool breeze. There are hills and mountains and flat fields of vines and crops. Villages sit atop high places and cling to sides of cliffs. They perch defiantly against the march of time and tourists. I have come to paint for over 25 years to the same villages and have become friends with some truly remarkable people. We are currently a guest of Ernst Sillem, a Dutchman, who has lived in his words, “an amusing life”. 

Ernst will soon turn 93 years old and still lives a vigorous and independent life. He has a glint in his eye and pep in his stride. His life has not been easy and in his success and positive nature we can learn some lessons in life. 

Ernst learned the skill of editing while being held a prisoner in German work camps throughout World War II. Ernst was saved from dying with all the occupants of Dachau as scheduled by the early arrival of American troops. He was a rare case of someone surveying the whole war being overworked and underfed in these hideous camps. He has many stories of grit and some good luck. His survival and subsequent life were a product of mind over matter. He declares that this was a grand school to learn how to survive hard knocks.


In prison Ernst learned to edit. He learned to put yesterday out of his mind in order to face the day ahead of him. This was a skill that he would need in his life that took him to pioneer new agricultural techniques in Morrocco and a rabbit farm in France. His ” good head” would help him cope with the loss of three wives, a son and many friends. Each day he wakes with good cheer and adventure in his heart. What a gift. What power good editing can have.

John Osler


Wednesday Through Saturday: DENNIS COFFEY



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