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Readers don't have to love you. Do you love you?

On overwriting and getting to the heart of the piece.

By Catherine DorianPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 6 min read
Top Story - February 2024
Readers don't have to love you. Do you love you?
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Every now and then, I sense I'm talking too much. I have a habit of thinking aloud, due in part, I suspect, to my falling in love with the dialogic approach to learning employed by my favorite teachers in high school. I figure out what I think as I speak.

When I'm alone, or when I just don't feel like speaking, I figure out what I think as I write.

I think that overwriting feels natural because, in my early years, at a time when many teachers were eager to incite in their students both the ability to write and the awareness to quiet down, I had shown proficiency in the latter and hope in the former.

The first research essay I ever did was on Helen Keller, and my third-grade teacher, impressed that I handwritten six pages for my rough draft, had the heart to exempt me from completing a final draft.

In eighth grade, when we all had to complete a research project that was, at the time, an infamous five pages, I handed in a final piece that was closer to ten.

"Catherine wrote a book," my English teacher said, as she fastened my multiple drafts and final copy — title page and all — with a giant paperclip.

In my junior year of high school, Ms. Coppens, who had wild curly hair and a frank expression that juxtaposed her tenderness, said that she had wanted badly to read my poem, inspired by Caliban of The Tempest, to the class, as a model of good writing, and was sorry that she couldn't.

"It was just so long," she explained, not at all unkindly.

I am privileged to have had mentors who nurtured my fixation. I am equally privileged to now have mentors and beta readers who entertain hours of Zoom calls and overextended cocktails-and-nachos dates to hear me talk about my writing.

But these mentors have their limits. Once, I overwrote a chapter of my graduate thesis and sent it to my adviser, the writer David Freed, who said, with candor and respect for the both of us, that I was far too talented to neglect the most painful, albeit necessary step of revising and also that he didn't have time to do it for me.

I once dated a guy who hovered as I wrote for a flash fiction competition. "Right there," he said. "That's where you're getting irrelevant. It's not about this." He highlighted some phrases that I loved. "It's about that."

Later on, he'd say that I had bad judgment, and in many ways, he was right. It was only with his advice that I was able to write the piece that won.

One of my favorite nonfiction teachers at Harvard stressed the importance of identifying the heart of the story: the center of its purpose around which all of the blood must circulate with efficient beauty.

Now I stand by, frustrated and awed that so many writers — many of them, my fellow Vocal writers — can publish with such fervor pieces that smack with clarity and precision. How does the poet tether to the page an extended metaphor that compares opening the door to a house to the devastating ending of a romantic relationship?

These are the writers who always get read.

I don't know how they're doing it because I only know how I do it. I've become obsessed with being efficient at my day job, which entails teaching 45-minute, Common Core standards-aligned lessons to ninth graders. But my writing, which swallows me whole, remains arduous.

The other week, I wrote thirteen pages about how my upbringing contributed to my becoming a teacher, in response to an assignment for a continuing education course I am taking. While in the drafting stages, I wrote to the professor, acknowledging that the directions specified three-to-four pages, but that I was rather enjoying writing the piece. I was over the page count (I didn't tell her by how much), but I was coming to realize how many factors related to my ethnic background acted as the impetuses for my educational philosophy.

She replied in one sentence that I should revise down to five pages.

I am not confident that my writing means much of anything to anyone (all writers must acknowledge that no one owes you their readership). But I am confident that my process is amateurish. I knew what trimming down the piece would entail: rereading the entire thing, beginning to end, and confronting the shame that comes with knowing that I had written too much about too many things that no self-respecting reader would ever care to read until the end.

And, of course, upon reopening the document, I saw that the piece was excessive. I hated it. So, I set to work extracting the gunk that clogged its pores and narrowed it down to a five-page piece about teaching for courage, about which I'm still insecure, but of which I am certainly not disdainful.

I have no sense of pacing in other areas of my life, either. At the start of a run, I'll intend to take it easy, only to find that at mile three, I see no reason to settle for less than four, and by mile four, I see no reason to settle for five. The other day I dedicated almost entirely to Anna Karenina, stopping only with regret that from my temples there emerged a primal ache that signals low blood sugar. I'm not always called to cleaning, but once I begin, I'll unpack the entire house and, with a toothbrush, massacre the caulk that lines my bathtub.

I know that these fixations are part of what make me a writer. I know that overwriting is what allows me to reason with myself as I connect ideas, meander to find the cause of some recently realized effect, discover areas of my consciousness that weren't there before.

I also know and am grateful for the limits of my potential readers, who have no patience for my antics and implore me to remove what they don't want or need.

I recently reopened an essay called "True Love, Now," which I wrote and published here on Vocal last fall. On impulse, I submitted it to the Love Unraveled Challenge, but upon copying and pasting it into a document where I could perform a word count, realized that at over 3,600 words, it was already ineligible. Plus, I can't ignore the fact that this story, which to me, once felt like one of my most didactic lessons on love, now reads as self-indulgent.

Even so, I want to love it again. I want it to teach others about love. And loving it does not have to mean nipping and tucking its excesses with disdain. Loving it can mean removing the over-writing that distracts readers from its heart, which begs to be seen.


Thank you for reading.

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About the Creator

Catherine Dorian

Writer and teacher. Sometimes, I write about teaching.

For me, writing is compulsive, but it never feels self-destructive; it’s the safest medium by which I can confront what scares me.

I've been told my Instagram needs a makeover.

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Comments (13)

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  • Carol Townend2 months ago

    Sometimes, I can be the same with my work. I find that there are positives in cutting out the jargon, though, as your work becomes easier to read for your readers.

  • Lacy Loar-Gruenler2 months ago

    A stab to the heart, but in a good way. Stellar writing my friend!

  • Anna 2 months ago

    Congrats on Top Story!!

  • Excellent insight into your journey, thank you for sharing

  • Caroline Craven2 months ago

    I think we all have our own 'quirks' when we're writing. I am probably the opposite of you and write way too little in my haste to get things down! I think your writing is elegant and a joy to read.

  • Babs Iverson2 months ago

    Congratulations on Top Story!!!🥰🥰🥰

  • Gabriel Huizenga2 months ago

    A beautiful and honest reflection on your journey as a writer- thank you for sharing!

  • To whomever so generously gave me a $5 tip, thank you so much!

  • John Cox2 months ago

    Catherine, you are not the first writer who prefers long-form writing. I have written ‘the more I write the more I write’ on this same platform. Proust’s writing is mesmerizing. In his famous rendering of a memory from his youth in ‘Combray,’ he begins with a simple moment that unfolding awakens an entire world. Descriptions of his continuous practice of rewriting are legend. Thomas Wolfe novels only saw the light of day due to Max Perkins Herculean editing. Finding the core of a thing, the irreducible center, is in some respects a form of death. I have enjoyed a fleeting opportunity to work at that for the last three months only because I’m currently between jobs. But it is a death nonetheless. I dread returning to the joyless grind. But here is the point (finally). You have enormous potential as a writer. You can figure this out just as you have elevated yourself as a teacher. But no one can light your pathway except for you. You have to find your own way to the answer. And once you do, you have the willpower and determination to see this thing through to successful publishing on a much larger stage than Vocal.

  • ROCK 2 months ago

    I don't know how I would react if someone hovered over me and said that what I was writing was irrelevant or too much; actually I do know how I would react but I'm trying to keep it clean here. To me, your point is when we stop writing from the heart, (which I do), we have stopped writing even if there are words on the paper before us. I am too short, too deep, raw and untamed. I am the content warning~. You give credence to the art and passion writr's and all real artists feel. Thank you!

  • sleepy drafts2 months ago

    Oh, this is so beautifully written, Catherine and *such* a great lesson! Thank you for writing and sharing this! I absolutely loved reading it! 💗💗

  • Babs Iverson2 months ago

    Superbly written!!! Loved it!!!💕♥️♥️

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