RWW Soundings

Craft Essays on Trimming


“Trimming (Notes to myself. A to-do list.)”
by Lia Purpura

(Originally published in the anthology Rules of Thumb; reprinted here with the author's permission)

Do the work of trimming. Pay attention. Watch butchers go at fatty shanks and loins with sharp knives. Learn about the raggedness of clay to be trimmed from pots and flat forms and see how it falls away. Be in excess more of the time, start there, and then pare. I think I should learn to peel apples more deftly—all around in one long spiral, like old Italian guys, who have time. I think I should learn to quarter and core and set the slices on a white plate to behold the distillation of cream-on-white. And the shining lamb I keep coming back to, the unresisting, hot, golden fat…cold fat clings terribly, but cooked slowly, for hours, even a spoon can lift it away.

And grass: let it grow wild. Let it tangle. Then harrow, making paths. Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine goes the overtone. Note crab grass aligned with blades of green Kentucky Blue. Following the black wheels, catch no fumes. Add nothing from a red gas can—this is push work. So push.

I should keep a machete near the door. I should switch to the machete more often.

To trim requires abundance. Start with abundance. Clean with a finger the spent coffee grounds in the pot's little chamber: see how much is packed in there. Washing dishes, let the sink fill, fill dangerously high, and when it's stopped and nothing will drain, pick up the mesh drainer and dump the vegetable bits and lumps of soap by hitting it hard against the garbage pail's side. Note the high watermark of grease.

I think I should learn to whittle, and not only to make a thing, but to see how far down I can take it, how far a stick can go in becoming a snake, a needle…what else? What else is in there?

Learning to trim, it would be helpful to learn to pluck a chicken or better, a pheasant. I suspect it's not a feather-by-feather proposition, but a matter of grabbing a handful and yanking. And making a pile to the side, collecting the feathers to use for…later.

Understand time trims with ease.

Meanwhile, take up pinking shears. Practice hems. Mark a line and run the fabric through once and let the same-colored thread bite in. Tie it off. Try the jeans on.  There's nothing scraping along the ground anymore or buckling, puckering, wrongly folding. The day itself seems more whole. All of a piece.

It's how diminishment makes us free.


Lia Purpura is the author of four collections of poems, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, The Brighter the VeilStone Sky Lifting, and King Baby, and three collections of essays, IncreaseRough Likeness, and On Looking, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Fulbright Fellowships as well as three Pushcart prizes, among other honors. Her work appears frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in The Paris ReviewOrion, AgniBest American Essays and other publications.

To complement and engage with Lia Purpura’s beautiful craft essay about trimming our words, Soundings invited two of her past mentees to respond to her essay. Below, Meghan McClure (2013) and Hilary Schaper (2008) provide their own craft essays about the concept of “trimming” and the writing process.
___________________________________—Chelsey Clammer, Soundings Editor

by Meghan McClure

Though your temperament is to throw everything away, keep some of the excess. Tuck it away, out of sight, to keep the space in front of you clear. But remember it is there; sometimes the trimmings come in handy. Learn there are useless and failed things worth keeping.

Toss the week’s carrot tops and celery too leafy to eat and the onion gone slightly soft and the garlic you bought too much of into a pot of water with spices, simmer it until the strained broth tastes like your childhood in fall.

Squirrel away bits and bobs in cigar boxes and empty drawers so you don’t have to look at the mess, but can thumb through when there is a lack. That black button from your old boyfriend’s tux that’s survived these years somehow, tucked in a red Brick House cigar box, will make the perfect replacement when your daughter chews the pearly black eye from her stuffed Dalmatian toy. Give new life to something with the old and nearly discarded.

Take the bag of trimmed grass and sprinkle it in the bare areas the dogs have dug up; new growth will come of it.

Walk your coffee grounds out to the soil beneath the blueberry bushes; use the trowel to stir them into the top layer where the extra nitrogen will keep your blueberries perfect for your daughters to pick through the summer.

hearts cover2There will be play dresses that need to be trimmed, reminiscent of Jane Austen. Clothing adorned with ribbons, ruffles, bows, and brooches. If you have saved enough of your past castoffs, your wayside collections, you will be able to pin your treasures to the flouncy thrift store dresses of your oldest daughter. For your youngest daughter, given to the thrill of adventure and danger, tuck into the box with foreign coins and shells, turn them into pirates’ treasure hidden in the yard or on the river’s shore. You didn’t want to save any of those things. You wanted to live with one of everything and nothing more, but the extras you’ve saved have been reimagined into something more.

Some things need to be thrown away. The clichéd holey socks and shattered vases. Others will tug at you, plead to be kept, like the napkins from bars you miss because of who was there and receipts that keep time better than any watch. Trust yourself to know the difference.

All of this is excess, is a way of getting to what I want to say. Sometimes you will be stuck so deeply in those domestic moments you won’t remember what it means to write a sentence from scratch. This is where the trimmings come in. Save your trimmed sentences, your lopped off endings, your chopped up bits of this and that, the words scribbled on the backs of children’s drawings, the lines of a poem that come to you in the market – because one day you might find yourself sitting in a workshop with two extraordinary writers, with nothing to write until they challenge you to look at the work you’ve pushed aside, to bring it back to life in a new genre. After looking through the remnants of old poems and cut lines and unused words, you will write them into an essay you’d been working toward since you were six years old. Sometimes by salvaging the pieces you’ve set aside, the sentences you didn’t finish but saved in a pile on your desk, you will save yourself.


Meghan McClure lives in Washington. Her work has been published in Mid-American Review, LA Review, Water~Stone Review, BOAAT, and is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review.

“Lessons from a Vine”
by Hilary Schaper

“To trim requires abundance. Start with abundance,” Lia advises.

I imagine this abundance. A vine sprawls along a wall, propelled by summer’s heat and light. The vine’s roots, like a writer’s imagination, want to spring forth, venture out in unknown directions, and explore. In my recent essay, “Vinescape” (to be published this summer in Under the Sun), a rambling vine becomes a metaphor for a map, and for one’s path through life. There, I wrote of the “vine’s tentacles craning toward the roof, cloaking the eaves’ undersides, spilling over the window frames, and bellying up to the glass.”  Its spread can be unruly, chaotic. How does a gardener tend to this growth?  Does she trim the plant’s tendrils, prune them to reorient or retrain them, allow them to grow unchecked, or, eradicate the entire vine by lopping it off at its root?  And, how does a writer trim the oft-disorderly copse of her words, thoughts, and ideas?

Each writer (and gardener)—who is not shears-happy—must define the meaning of “abundance” for herself. When does she consider her words (or shoots) ample, ripe for pruning? As we writers know, there is no arbitrary measure. What seems bountiful to one writer, might not to another. Similarly, at one moment, an individual writer might consider her material “abundant enough” to warrant trimming. At another moment, this same material might seem insufficient. Time, too, plays a role, as Lia reminds us. Stepping away from the work for a moment, and returning to it, can provide a new perspective.

I write in various ways at various times. Most often when I begin, I allow the surge of words to carry me off, spirit me away. The rush to get it all down is exhilarating. There’s a lure, a seduction to losing oneself in one’s words. Pruning at this juncture would arrest my “flow.”  My vines, once again, provide guidance, “[i]f we lop off that tentacle, we check the vine’s movement in that particular direction, thwart its reach, block its intersection with another tendril. We redirect the pleasure of aimless wandering . . ..”  Much of the task of trimming becomes a matter of whether and when to redirect the excitement of plumbing unfamiliar terrain. On other occasions, usually when I’m further along in a project, my “method” can best be described as “prune as I go.”  I write a small bit, refine my words, write another small bit, refine more, and so on. With each distillation, I’m able to clarify my thinking with more and more specificity.

Once a writer’s decided to trim, how does she figure out what to cut away (the “fat,” to which Lia refers), and what to leave?  The writer’s taste and vision are central to this determination as well. Often the subject itself will dictate. Here’s an example. “Vinescape” is an essay, which, like the vines I describe, meanders. By refusing to proceed in a linear direction, it accretes through digressions, gathering observations and information here and there. Before the piece was accepted, I received several critiques suggesting that I edit it to make it tighter, more “centralized”—less rambling. To me, these comments, though welcome, missed the mark. I intended its form to reflect its subject. In fact, the editor who accepted “Vinescape” liked this aspect.

At all points, we writers must consider whether our words advance our writing in some way. If redundancy exists, it must serve a particular purpose. How easy it is to fall in love with our own words. The old adage, “murder your darlings,” (which I recently learned was coined by Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 lecture, “On Style”) remains a valuable prescription. (Were I to follow it now, I’d strike this fact, though it was fun to share!) Alas, paring is such sweet sorrow. Its scope, though, need not be extensive. Even a snippet may spur a plant to bloom in unexpected ways, or germinate into another sprout. (Lia’s “feathers to use for . . . later.”)  Not all clippings will take root instantly. Those tossed in the compost heap, abandoned to the fertile soil, may incubate, and flourish yet.


Hilary Schaper’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, earned Honorable Mention in New Letters’ nonfiction contest, and been named a finalist in the Prime Number Magazine’s creative nonfiction contest. Her essays have appeared in Hotel Amerika, Shadowbox, Shark Reef, SLAB, and other publications. An essay is forthcoming this summer in Under the Sun. She lives in Los Angeles. In a previous life, she practiced law. 



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