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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Ready for the Market
I like clutter. I have a house full of souvenirs from vacations in Venice, Prague and Jerusalem. Photos of beautiful babies who are now at times sullen teenagers without resemblance to their cherubic early selves. Books overflow the shelves in almost every room. Clutter to me is a sign of creativity, that I have better things to do than tidy up.
However, I’m getting ready to sell my house. Someone else must be able to enter and imagine living here. Though I love my peacock feathers from a farm trip last summer, my mixing bowls stacked within easy reach, and every luscious kindergarten finger painting hung on the walls, I know it must go.
Putting a house on the market is very similar to getting a manuscript ready for others to read. In the case of the house, a prospective buyer needs to be able to walk through and imagine how his or her belongings will fit. Similarly, an author needs to keep in mind that a bit of decluttering with a manuscript can be helpful, allowing the reader a way in. An author has to move back from self to others, giving readers a chance to see themselves in the story.
Decluttering a manuscript involves the same process as readying a house for sale, making a space for another person to move without the author’s preoccupations, tics and obsessions intruding constantly. Now that I’ve begun to declutter, I realize that living without all the stuff is kind of nice. I’m discovering things– the jacket that matches a pair of sparkly monkey-patterned sweatpants. Books on Holland my kindergartener can use in her “children around the world” report. Books I took with me to Yaddo months ago, which I had shipped home to avoid luggage fees. .
In my manuscript, stripping away the extra adjectives similarly allows one to see the beauties of the framework. I often use extra descriptions so the reader will understand the story. Instead, I need to trust the reader’s imagination and abilities. The extra adjectives are like excess knickknacks stored for contingencies, the boxes in the basement that remain unopened after years of collecting dust. A reader will be able to see more clearly without excess embellishment or boxes to trip over and peer around.
I realize the need to keep things clear in my home and my book, so that everyone can find their way in. In all my decluttering work, I am making decisions, what to save and what to keep. These are tough but necessary decisions for a home and manuscript. Jettisoning things, like eradicating an entire character and subplot, make way for the true aims of the book. A wise writer, Katharine Weber, once advised me that my “effectiveness is diluted by the way you didn’t make a choice.”
That is the best advice to give someone who is decluttering. Make choices. Remove or set aside unnecessary sentences even if they are lovely. I need to listen to editors who advise me on what to remove, painful as it is. Each of these possessions, the house and the manuscript, though inhabited by me and deeply personal, need to be available to others. That is the point. In the case of the manuscript, it is the goal to get readers. In the case of the house, a buyer. Remember the happy occasions, the friends entertained and birthday parties held and know that those experiences will be continued elsewhere. They are not gone because the house is sold. Likewise, with my manuscript, the unused sentences haven’t disappeared forever. They sit in other files, waiting to be hauled out for use.
Part of me feels that in packing things away, my home is becoming less my residence already. And the other part feels, “Wow, it looks good like this.” It is the same thing with my manuscript. It’s easier to clear away words than objects. But still, letting go is a process of transformation. Both my house and my manuscript can be mine, but decluttered in a way that lets others imagine themselves occupying their physical and narrative spaces.
Beth Kissileff has had her fiction and non-fiction published in Slate.com, Zeek, Tablet, the Jewish Review of Books, Jerusalem Report, the News and Observer(Raleigh, NC), JewishFiction.net, and Jewish Book World. She is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013). She has taught English literature, Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College. Her house is presently on the market. Jonathan Spar, her agent, can be reached at Edina Realty.