I didn’t really get it when Elisabeth Sifton told me, “Good nonfiction contains about 10 percent of what the writer knows.” She was about to publish my first book, into which I had poured close to 100 percent of what I knew, thought, and felt about the Group Theatre. Despite Elisabeth’s reputation as a formidable editorial taskmaster, she suggested only one major excision in the manuscript and didn’t press me when I rejected it. I think she understood that some lessons a writer has to learn for herself.
Now, nearly a quarter-century later, I know when I embark on an essay or a review that I will figure out what I want to say by writing endless drafts in which I say far too much. I will wander through my subject’s history, biography, etiology; I will pin down every metaphor or analyze every childhood trauma, or both. Then I will cut, cut, and cut some more; only as I remove extraneous material do I see the shape of the story that has been hiding underneath all along. Nonfiction writers tell stories just as novelists do—otherwise, they would be mere purveyors of undigested information.
This painful process is neither authorial masochism nor wasted effort. Selection and distillation give clarity, authority, and focus to what remains. It’s like subtext in the theater, where the words the characters speak are fueled by emotions and intentions that remain unspoken. Nonfiction rests on a bedrock of facts that you the writer must have, but you don’t have to share every single one of those facts. Your job is to convey the meaning you found in them to your readers, and in that quest, what you leave out is as important as what you leave in.
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