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Omission can be very powerful

September 29, 2015

How something is said matters. Think of someone you would like to hear say “I love you” to you. (Even if it would complicate your life.) Hear the difference—certainly, it’s different from “Love you” called over a shoulder, or “Luv ya!”

The “I” matters a lot. But then, so does the “you.” We probably all know people for whom saying “I love” is enough. There are two forms of that—the person who is more in love with being in love than being in love with you, and then the person who has genuinely developed a kind of transpersonal love, in which you still matter but in a different, universally inclusive way.

This column isn’t about love. It’s about “Omission,” the title of an article by John McPhee in a recent issue of The New Yorker (perhaps the most well-read magazine in our library’s collection).

You might wonder, should we consider Mr. McPhee expert on this matter? He can certainly be free with words, but then that’s exactly the kind of person to look to for experience. Is the person who never writes more than a haiku the person to go to? We’d have to see the first drafts, I think.

The article is about “choosing what to leave out,” which can be hard. A full page into the article, there comes the thesis statement: “Writing is selection.” Before and after is much memoir, and it is all very engaging and eventually comes around to a very satisfying conclusion.

Still, it made me smile to come upon this thesis so far in. Yet the first page of memoir sets up the thesis perfectly. Leisure can be rich.

McPhee says, “At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not it stays out.” This delighted me because, if you remember, it is the Marie Kondo way of tidying up. You throw every piece of clothing you own on the floor and go through it one by one. Does it bring you joy? Keep it. If not, throw it out.

Of course there’s more to it, and McPhee explores the territory. He is also a writing teacher, so he knows the quotes. Michelangelo: “The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows.”

He quotes what he calls one of the world’s most venerable cliches, from Hemingway’s idea of a Theory of Omission: “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Hemingway said that if a writer knew enough about what he was writing about, he could eliminate what he knows, and if his writing is true enough, the reader will have a feeling of those things.

There must be a certain truth in this. I’m not sure how far it goes with “I love you,” but context matters, of course. For me, the risk is that extreme spareness is an invitation to sentimentality. Precision can be sacrificed for a kind of group hug.

The process requires care. Omission can be very powerful—the white space in a painting, the silence in a symphony.

And the justifications can be many. I another bit of remarkable memoir, McPhee finds himself at age nineteen alone in the painting studio of General Eisenhower, who is explaining some of his feelings behind a still life of fruit.

McPhee asked, “Why have you left out the grapes?”

Ike said, “Because they’re too God-damned hard to paint.”


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