Writing Well and the Art of Forgetting

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan talks about, among other things, the importance of forgetting.  We don’t usually think of it this way, but forgetting is almost as important as remembering for our psychology and survival.  Would you really want to remember, in detail, every single commute you ever make?  Every single meal you eat?  Every word you hear someone else say?  Every word you read?

Forgetting is adaptive.  It is the process of editing the overwhelming flood of sensory information that comes at us every moment of every day, so that it is refined down to something manageable, something that won’t break our brains.

I’ve been editing a lot myself lately, and it made me think about how forgetting is like editing our writing.  We must slow the flood of everything I want to tell you about my fascinating characters, my wondrous setting.  Essentially ‘forgetting’ selectively until what you have left over is meaningful and beautiful and elegant – and by necessity, profoundly incomplete.

It’s amazing to me that even a profoundly abbreviated expression – a snippet of poetry, a single photograph, a cartoon – can feel so complete.  Through selectively ‘forgetting’, editing, whittling down, we come up with something that is not merely a placeholder for a more full experience.  It is itself a better expression than the full experience might have been.  It is evocative rather than discursive.  It is beautiful rather than thorough.

2 thoughts on “Writing Well and the Art of Forgetting

  1. This is what poetry does in so many cases, provides human experience spring-loaded and ready to blow into our hearts and minds. Condense, Condense, Condense, Read, KABOOM!
    This is why I love the Imagists.

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  2. I've always thought that the really excellent improvisatory musicians weren't the ones who could play all the notes, but the ones who knew the right notes to play. Eric Clapton might as well be an electrified note-playing machine, as far as I'm concerned–sure, he plays a lot of really pretty-sounding notes, and can do so at really high speed, but there's no center to his playing. Contrast him with a guy like Brownie McGhee, whose playing might be a lot less technically dazzling but orbits around a super-dense emotional core.

    I'll use a different example from the world of comic-book art. To generalize, the fan-boy desire is for the comic artist to draw everything. Some people look at the early days of Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, and say, “You used to draw so much more detail! Why has your art gotten worse?” False! In the nearly thirty years that Sakai has been working on that book, the art has gone from 'good-but-overly-cute-and-stiff' to 'flowing-and-poetic'. In my opinion. (Which is the right opinion, btw.) Sakai says that the discipline of drawing his work regularly has taught him what is essential and inessential in a drawing, and he is able more and more to bring out the essential, and cast off the inessential clutter.

    Mike Mignola is another great example of this. His art has gotten much stronger over the years as he has gained the skill and courage to not draw everything that would logically be in an image. The large swaths of black ink that characterize his work on Hellboy are not indicative of laziness, as some that I've spoken with at the comic book store would have it; rather, they are the triumph of editing, and a mark of his confidence in both his ability and the reader's capacity for discernment.

    Kind of a long post on the topic of editing, I'm realizing. Maybe next you can write about irony, and I'll bloviate on the tragedy of meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife. At any rate, thanks Doug.

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