Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The greening of a story

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Calvin Trillin

A common complaint then among Time writers who found themselves stuck on a story was “this story just won’t write”—as if the story had a will of its own and was using it to resist being shaped into a coherent narrative. I may have used the phrase from time to time myself. The problem was mostly space…Given the density of the seventy lines and the imperative to keep the story moving, there often seemed to be at least one highly relevant fact that simply didn’t fit. I pictured that left-out fact darting around to find an opening and being rebuffed by every paragraph it tried to squeeze into—like someone trying door after door in a desperate effort to board a thoroughly stuffed rush-hour subway. Sometimes, if I had until the next day to turn the story in, I’d head home, finding that the knot in the narrative came loose with the rhythmic clacking of the subway train.

Writing the story at seventy lines didn’t mean the compressing was over. At the end of the week (or “at week’s end,” as we would have put it, in order to save three words), the makeup people would invariably inform us that the story had to be shortened to fit into the section. Since words or passages cut for space were marked with a green pencil—changes that had to be made because of something like factual error were in red—the process was called greening. The instructions were expressed as how many lines had to be greened—“Green seven” or “Green twelve.” I loved greening. I don’t have any interest in word games—I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble—but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten percent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.” And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.

Calvin Trillin, in The New Yorker

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2015 at 6:30 am

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