The Theory of Omission

In his essay “Writing by Omission,” John McPhee (2015) quotes Ernest Hemingway who, in his 1932 nonfiction book Death in the Afternoon, describes his theory of omission : “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. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

In a 1966 interview with George Plimpton in the New York Times Book Review, Truman Capote also endorses this theory, while reflecting on his non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood. “I suppose if I used just 20 percent of all the material I put together over those years of interviewing, I’d still have a book two thousand pages long! I’d say 80 percent of the research I did I have never used.”

When I assign a non-fiction text,  I like to challenge students to infer, from what they read in an essay, what the author didn’t use. Inferring what a writer left out is a great exercise to illuminate the power of a writer’s choices. This exercise is also a great way to start a discussion about choice:  how do you know what to cut out and what to leave in?

In this exercise, I want students to examine and make a guess about the part of the iceberg that isn’t visible. Make some guesses about the 80 % that never made it into the essay.  What was left out? Why do you think it was left out? What facts, research, stories, or studies must have been known by the author but doesn’t appear on the page?

I use an essay like Tom Philpott’s “How Factory Farms Play Chicken with Antibiotics,” about the use of antibiotics in the poultry industry.  In its original form, published in Mother Jones magazine, the essay is accompanied by 10 pictures, 4 bold-faced blurbs, three infographics and one video clip. There are 54 paragraphs and around 4700 words.

Philpott introduces Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s vice president for food safety, who serves as sort of an informational guide for the whole essay. Speaking in first person, Philpott starts us in a scene: “The massive metal double doors open and I’m hit with a whoosh of warm air. Inside the hatchery, enormous racks are stacked floor to ceiling with brown eggs.”

As students read, I ask them to keep a running list of ideas, information, facts, figures, studies, research, etc., that the writer must have known, but has clearly left out. Students demonstrate what they think was left out through collecting textual evidence, and they make some guesses about why the author omitted it.

In this essay, Philpott breezily moves back and forth between narrative, information, and argumentation.   Students immediately notice that he has omitted the USDA guidelines for poultry production, much of the history of poultry farming, and the relationship Philpott has with Stewart-Brown.

The next conversation we have is why. Why does he leave these elements out?

“He doesn’t need it,” Leslie said. “He’s paring it down to the essentials.”

“The essentials of what? The story?” I ask.

“He doesn’t need it for the story he’s telling,” she said. “He’s only putting in stuff for his reasons.”

“His reasons?”

“His purpose, what he’s trying to tell the reader about,” she concluded.

This activity goes a long way to show students that not every ingredient they’ve laid out on the kitchen table of their research has to go into the soup of their argument; only those ingredients that’s going to make the dish delicious and nutritious, only those elements that support purpose.

This activity has two benefits:  it illustrates the power of choice and it also illustrates Hemingway’s theory of omission.  The most powerful essays are the ones that feature the dignity of the iceberg.

Advertisements

Why I Have No Favorite Books

A friend recently challenged me to name my ten favorite books, and I am ashamed to admit no such list exists for me.  Even though my reading past has been deep and wide, I have no favorite books.

The first book I knew was a small green Gideon’s Bible. I was about three.  One of my older brothers or sisters might have brought this home from school, and somehow I found it.  Even though I couldn’t read, I’d hunker down in the corner of a closet, run my finger over the tiny pages and whisper things in the dark.  This position of closet hunkering and prayer whispering has remained with me as an adult, my one nod to suburban mysticism.

When I was enrolled in Mrs. Blanton’s first grade class at Clintonville Elementary School, I recognized she loved reading, and specifically she loved Judy Edwards, whose grandmother had taught her to read. Judy stood up in front of the class one day and read a book to us.  I was floored. And jealous.  The next day, I stood up with a book I randomly pulled off the shelf and read it, making up elaborate subplots and tricky character developments based on the pictures on the page.  Mrs. Blanton sat at her desk and grinned.  (That day, in addition to discovering my affinity for prevarication,  I pledged my undying love to all those who teach and don’t tell.)

In elementary school, I plowed through Nancy Drew’s mysteries, Anne of Green Gables, and Heidi. I read to escape boredom and my fundamentalist pre-occupation with hellfire.  By sixth grade, Clintonville’s damp, basement library held nothing more for me.  My sixth grade teacher gave me James Michener’s Centennial, a 1000+ page mass-market paperback that crossed my eyes for the three weeks it took to read it.  I never picked up another Nancy Drew.

During the summers, Mom took me to the Bourbon County Public Library to check out books. The library was as sacred as the books it held – the air-conditioned shush, the musty smell, the severed elephant foot that served as an ottoman in the front hall.  I was not allowed in a certain section of the library.  I had been satisfying myself with the soft-core romance thrillers of Victoria Holt, but one day the librarian was at lunch, and a hippy intern was behind the desk.  My mother was in the car. I slipped into the adult section and pulled the first book I could find off the shelf. The hippy checked it out to me without question and stuffed it into my bag.  At home, in my room, I peeked at the book cover.  A half-naked woman chained to an iron bed frame.  Irving Wallace’s rape fantasy book, The Fan Club.  I read it front to back, twice, completely scandalized and hooked on trashy fiction.

In middle school and high school, I read books, wrote book reports detailing the plots of these books and got an A back for my efforts.  I read whatever I wanted.  Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, John Irving’s World According to Garp. I read and book-reported on dozens of books. It was a perfect arrangement.

As a junior in high school, I went to a summer program for nerds.  Every morning for four weeks, I met with a college professor and 10 other high school students to discuss Heart of Darkness and Tender is the Night.  At Bourbon County High School, my peers had little interest in discussing mutability or verisimilitude. (One of my favorite memories of high school English was Ms. Carter yelling at the back row of rednecks, “Sit back there and wear your dummy badges!”) In the summer program, we explored, discovered beyond-the-plot dimensions, and analyzed things that didn’t even exist on the page.  I’d never had a conversation about a book like that before.

When I enrolled at UK in 1985, I declared myself a bonafide English major and read the British-American canon with gratitude.  In a Southern Lit class, I encountered Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, and Eudora Welty.   My senior year, I took a Kentucky Literature class with Gurney Norman and read James Still, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jim Wayne Miller, Ed McClanahan, Wendell Berry, and Breece D’J Pancake.  That there was poetry in the world written by tobacco farmers and short stories written about Wal-Mart was as big a revelation in my reading life as any other discovery I’d made. This discovery lead me to read with the desire to discover how the narratives were built, how stories worked, how I might learn to write from reading books written by people just like me.

From the Bible to mainstream romance to the canon to books written in my backyard, I have read for a variety of reasons, but basically, I just like to read.  Whether it’s Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde (which I finished last night) or Zadie Smith’s NW (which I am starting tonight), I am addicted to the decadent pleasure of lying on my couch and being somewhere else at the same time.

Reading is discovery, and as such, no book is any more of a revelation than another.  When I said at the beginning of this blog I have no favorite books, I should amend that to say: every book is my favorite.

Whatever book I’m reading at the time is the best book ever.