Notes on My Literary Minimalism
Carol Guess Considers Subtraction, in Writing and in Life
My family didn’t keep tokens or uphold rituals. We knew we were a family because of what we didn’t say. We loved each other, but objects rarely served as reminders. We moved constantly, packing and repacking, discarding because it was easier to travel light. My parents left things behind on purpose and on accident. Grown, in houses of our own, my sister and I chose opposite strategies. She fills rooms with beautiful things, in piles, on hangers, a large house filled with tangible reminders. In Seattle, where I live above a busy street, my two rooms are spare. I like the space between furniture. I like the table clear, a few clothes tucked in a drawer.
I move frequently; consequently, loyalty is profoundly important to me. The things I keep I keep by choice. As a writer, I value an aesthetic built around musicality and brevity, a concise style that leaves room for my reader to fill in the gaps. Compression invites me to choose wisely, to winnow, to do without. Simultaneously, I celebrate what remains. There’s possibility in emptiness. Compression eschews sentimentality, but it’s not anti-sentiment. Instead, compression narrows an experience, emotion, or image to the point of greatest intensity. I cut unnecessary words in service to music, meaning, and movement. I leave absences for readers to revel in mystery. What’s unsaid becomes the frame for what’s said, just as, in conversation, silence lets you know someone is really listening.
Wringing language dry, I force excess from early drafts. This might mean leaving something bare, just the skeleton of elements. Or it might mean the sound of dripping, the sense of something lightening, trailing off, expressing, weeping.
As the first step in recycling is choosing to buy nothing, the first step in compression is choosing to stay present. So much prose feels heavy with narrative expectation, characters weighed down by plot. How can a sentence be beautiful and meaningful if it only serves what comes next? To rest with the word, to dwell on the sentence, a reader must see the importance of that moment on the page. When I studied dance, I learned to pay attention to transitions, small steps linking showy movements. The care a dancer places on the in-between, the step before the leap, becomes that dancer’s imprint.
Compression narrows an experience, emotion, or image to the point of greatest intensity.
My first foray into compression as a conscious practice came while I was revising a messy manuscript, pages strewn on the floor, fragments and lineated poems and innards of an essay and short story starters and bits of a novel. I envisioned this mess as three, maybe four separate manuscripts, if only I had time to expand each one in turn. The mess of it felt like despair, each unfinished manuscript proof of my failure. I was a failure sitting on the floor in my room. All this mess, not one path through.
I sat with the mess every day for three months. Occasionally I’d work on one piece or another, try to make the essay longer, finish a story, the novel. I sent out a few poems, got rejections, a few acceptances, but mostly I sat in my graveyard of work.
Hard to remember when the light bulb went off, but I know it was visual: looking at the papers strewn on the floor, I saw lines lift as if illuminated. I understood clearly that the poems were there, hidden, as sculpture hides in a block of stone. It wasn’t four books, but one; the obstacle was excess. I didn’t need to write more, but less. I picked up an unfinished short story, read it through. Realized that the essence of the story was contained in its first paragraph. Picked up a scissors and cut out that block. Placed it on the floor, a stepping stone. The start of the path, rock, scissors, paper. I cut paragraphs from pages, sentences from passages, words from lines. The more I cut, the more clearly the shape of the book stood out. This book, Tinderbox Lawn, became my first collection of prose poems. Form happened on accident, through intensive revision, one good way to come to compression. But what about choosing to compress from the start?
How can I get to the heart faster?
Recently, at Open Books, Seattle’s poetry bookstore, I taught a class on compression in prose poetry. We talked about different reasons and occasions for writing compressed work; in writing about trauma, for example, elusiveness and absence can be used strategically. We looked at Morgan Parker’s brilliant poem “Afro” and Eva Heisler’s haunting poem “Lover’s Manual,” asking how race, gender, and sexuality inform each author’s choice to compress layered material. We talked about building a sequence out of tiny boxes, as Richard Siken does in “You Are Jeff” and Allison Benis White does in Self-Portrait with Crayon. We asked if Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was compressed, built out of novellas, akin to a prose poetry sequence, and decided that maybe it was, if compared to a novel with a straightforward narrative arc. Analyzing poems from Joy of Missing Out, we talked about how Ana Bozicevic incorporates compressed forms found in social media. I asked my students to write tiny things; then we worked with what we’d left out, lists of things excised, unwritten. Where do you keep the excess, I asked; what coat, what room, what limb?
When I work with a compressed aesthetic in mind, I ask myself these questions:
• How can I get to the heart faster?
• How can I winnow what I have; can I cut a word, a line? Often, I study each word in each line and ask, “Do I need you, Word?”
• What’s worth keeping, once removed; where do I store the excess? A separate file, a separate piece, a companion? A reminder of loss and how to keep on?
• How do silence and absence work in this piece? Could they work harder? Is silence serving a greater purpose or is it a moment of cowardice?
• When to quit; that is, sometimes something resists compression for good reason. Maybe it shouldn’t be compressed. Maybe it needs to be longer. Recently, collaborating with Kelly Magee on what we thought was a new short story, we realized the voice was novel-length. We’re trying, now, to make it a novel. To flex our writing muscles.
• Is this a singular piece or does it need to be paired, replicated, extended into a sequence, with or without a narrative arc?
• What emotional purpose does compression serve? Does it have a mood? Is it brisk, melancholy, spare, reserved, playful? How does that serve content?
• What am I losing by compressing?
• What might my reader do with the gaps? Is there room for a reader to connect with this work, or does the work shut out the reader with its austerity?
Moving so frequently, I grew accustomed to goodbye, to the pattern of letting go. For a time, as an adult, I had trouble staying still, because roots felt like tethers. Holding on meant holding back. How this changed is a topic for another essay, not compressed at all, but wordy. How this changed began with the gift of choosing what to keep, learning not to look back but to dwell in this wor(l)d.