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Writer as wood carver: exercises in re-visioning, Part 2 of 2

In a writing class taught by Nicola Morris, I learned how to be a sculptor of words. As described in part 1 of this post, she had us take a page of completed work and after each sentence, insert two new sentences.

Now that I’d added 66% more words to my masterpiece, it was time to whittle away the unnecessary fat. The first exercise Nikki gave us is called “unpacking.” It’s a good exercise that teaches us to take our time as writers and fully develop a piece. The next trick was to take these unpacked, expanded pages and whittle them down again—leaving only what’s essential. I think of it like packing and unpacking a suitcase—there’s a whole bunch of stuff in there and each item has its own place…I wouldn’t put my bra in the medicine cabinet with my toothbrush would I?

In order to decide what to keep, I ask myself three questions: 1) What is important to me in this piece?  2) What do I want to say?  3) Which sentences are essential to what I want to say?

Once I have my intent firmly planted in my mind (or written down so I remember it), I look at every single sentence and decide if it stays or goes. What surprises me is that some of my original sentences will be the first to be deleted and the ones I added in the unpacking exercise will take over. Sometimes, the piece will take on a slightly different angle or even an entirely new trajectory. Then I’ll have more unpacking to do.

Unpacking or packing, sculpting or whittling, whatever we call it—the idea is to open up our work so what is important shines through.

Exercise: Take the piece you unpacked from part 1 and answer the three questions above about what is important to you in this piece of writing. Now, read each sentence aloud and cross out every sentence that doesn’t feel central to your intentions. In your next draft, take out these sentences and read the piece again to see how it’s changed. How do you feel about your re-visioned piece? Did these two exercises spark new ideas or give depth to existing ones?

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