October 28, 2010


Several years ago, when I gardened on my own, I took a half day workshop on how to prune plants and shrubs and even trees at our local Japanese Garden. What I took away with me was the word “prudhoe” which is probably not how it’s spelled but which means to stump or blunt cut a branch without regard to its growing habits. A prudhoe cut is probably among the most heinous offenses one can commit against a plant and I never forgot the lesson.

A good cut anticipates future growth and guides as well as respects the plant’s shape. It also allows an observer to view the supporting structure — the trunk and the larger branches – and permits light to filter through the leaves to keep them and the ground below healthy. A Japanese maple that has been pruned well is a joy to the eye as its dark, twisting understructure is exposed to stand in contrast to the delicate foliage.  

Writing, I’ve found, is a lot like pruning a Japanese maple. What remains on the page should be only what is necessary, words that carry meaning but also imply… suggest. Sticky words as Pooh would describe them. (Blog: June 8, 2010) 

I read recently that William Gifford, Jane Austen’s editor for some of her books, did a lot of pruning of her work (AP: Jill Lawless, 10/23/2010). She had a tendency to break the rules of English, was experimental and careless in her spelling. Gifford shaped her style to give it acceptable form, although Oxford English Professor Kathryn Sutherland argues Austen’s dialogue was better in its unedited version.  Nonetheless, the pruning was meant to improve the work and in the main it did, for Austen is among the world’s most beloved writers.

On the other end of the spectrum is what I call prudhoe editing. Theodor Seuss Geisel, Dr. Seuss, performed this on one of his pieces. He cut with such vigor, in fact, that in the end, he decided to let his work die. Or so he thought, but last week his maimed story, All Sorts of Sports, went up for auction at Christies. His staff assistant had saved it and decided it was time to sell.

I wonder how the author would feel knowing his bloodied story had survived.  Several authors have tried to abandon a work only to have some acolyte save it for posterity. Historically, the saving might be of interest, but as literature the artists knew what they were doing when they attempted to send their writing to oblivion. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the heart to utterly destroy their efforts… a minor piece of vanity which I can understand. Sometimes, however, an author must be cruel to be kind. Rather than leave their offspring maimed by prudhoe cuts, it would be better to consign them to the fire.