Things are getting a little Sixth Sense over here in Storrs, Connecticut. I see dead sentences.
I call them “phantoms,” or sentences that you’ve painstakingly — or, let’s be honest, rather sloppily — crafted but that you later have to edit out, excise, relocate, or otherwise make disappear. And then they haunt you. You want to bring them back, but you know that resurrecting the dead is never a good idea. Just ask any B-grade horror movie featuring a Ouija board. And really, you didn’t delete without justification. There are a million reasons for such word violence. The unyielding twenty-minute time limit of a conference presentation. The argument that turns abruptly in an unexpected direction, ensuring that a good half of your freakin’ research is no longer relevant. Or, if you’re me, persistent long-windedness.
Ramblers suffer from phantom sentences more than most.
Some phantoms are more ephemeral than others. I’m particularly susceptible to historical minutiae and biographical trivia. I mean, the Victorians are so weird, and it’s impossible to resist cluttering up my paragraphs with details destined for deletion.* How can I write about Robert Louis Stevenson in any capacity — including, apparently, on this blog — without describing the War Room in Samoa, where he staged epic lead soldier battles? And a casual mention of the War Room won’t do, because the rules of the game are too tantalizing to leave out. For example, when a player throws the dice and rolls triple fours, his army is seized with sudden cowardice and disperses, setting the regiment back an entire day’s march. “But the rule was soon given up,” writes Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, “for it was too heartbreaking to have one’s most skillful calculations upset by an unforeseen and most unnecessary panic.” And if I’m going to mention Lloyd’s account of the War Room — which was published in the 1895 volume of St. Nicholas Magazine — then I want to mention the unsettling poem about “That Little Peanut Man” that appears in the same volume of that periodical.** And I mean, the peanut really doesn’t belong anywhere — not in your bleakest nightmares, much less in my manuscript.
These are what I guess you’d call free association phantoms. Or stream of consciousness spirits! (Virginia Woolf was particularly haunted by such details.) And they’re not very troublesome. While I want to tell everyone about the peanut man — and while I might humor myself for a few days and invite the peanut man into a book chapter, grinning his horrible little grin in a footnote — it isn’t all that painful to delete those extraneous details. (Side note: I secretly harbor the ambition to edit one of those hardback annotated editions of a canonical children’s text, so I can go NUTS with my useless information in sprawling marginalia. I mean, they let Martin Gardner write about the laws that govern ferret ownership in the margins of the jury scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What’s a peanut man or two?)
But there are certainly more harrowing phantoms out there — paragraphs and sections and sometimes entire chapters that have to be amputated only to return, bony-fingered and persistent. For example: sparing my future readers the details of Stevenson’s intricate war games is one thing. Excising ten pages on Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde is another. Every time I return to the Stevenson chapter, Hyde skulks in the margins. Enraged that he’s been cut, he is ready to take over my body and, say, beat up Sir Danvers Carew. (Poor Sir Danvers Carew.) CTRL-Xing large blocks of text like this one can be almost physically painful. Like an unanticipated (and really just silly) mutiny in Stevenson’s War Room, it can set you back an entire day’s march. Maybe a week. Sometimes more.
And it feels like a game of Jenga. How much can I remove before the entire thing comes tumbling down? What is essential, and what is interesting but ultimately unnecessary? How does removing this text transform the stakes of my argument? What needs explanation, and what is self evident? And I know I’m not a grad student anymore, but I just feel like I have to prove that I’ve read Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan.*** It feels like a game of high-stakes editing. Is this section heart, liver, and lungs, or is it tonsils and appendix? And if I remove these tonsils, will someone bring me ice cream while I convalesce?
My metaphors are getting away from me. If this were a more formal piece of writing, that gall bladder thing would have to go.
The thing about editing out the excess: no one really misses it but you, of course. When, Flying Spaghetti Monster willing, I finally publish my book, my readers will not miss the peanut man because they do not know about the peanut man. (If only I were so lucky.) And those phantoms can return in wonderful, unexpected ways: as second projects, as anecdotes to enliven a class of end-of-semester zombie-undergraduates, as cocktail party conversation.
The peanut! He’s great with cocktails.
* I’m also a sucker for alliteration, which used to drive one of my dissertation committee members crazy. Alliterative sentences are phantoms waiting to happen.
** You can access this volume of St. Nicholas here, on Google Books. Read about Stevenson and his toy soldiers on pp. 305-7. Find the peanut man — if you dare! — on p. 170.
*** In truth, I’ve read The Case of Peter Pan multiple times and in moods ranging from mild exasperation to outright fury.