Writing is like boiling down maple sap.
One of my favorite childhood haunts was the sugar camp. All winter I’d wait for sugaring. Wet winds would blow in from Lake Erie and the Ohio Valley, and when they tried to climb the mountains of Western Maryland, where I lived, those mountains would wring them out like a rag, turning the moisture into snow at an average of a hundred inches per year.
But I could tell winter was wearing down when my grandpa started tinkering around in the sugar camp. He’d gather the spiles that pierced the trees and wash the keelers that gathered the sap, and fire up the evaporator. Soon I’d trail along under the maples as he harvested the first crop of the year.
Sap, I discovered when I sneaked a bit of the clear liquid, tastes almost like water. The sweetness had to be in there somewhere. I knew this from the maple candy my grandma made by pouring hot maple syrup on a clean bed of snow, the taffy we pulled with buttered hands until it turned satiny and held its shape, and the golden river of syrup I mopped up with my pancakes.
But between the sap and the syrup was a whole lot of boiling down. It takes, after all, forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. So from the vats of bubbling sap, clouds of steam rose into the chilly spring air, taking away what wasn’t wanted and leaving what was sweet.
That image of the vanishing steam has helped me write. My first drafts, I’ve found, are more like sap than like syrup—full of what isn’t wanted. I’ve learned to be wary of every word—to ask, “What are you doing here?” Actually, leery of each syllable. I’ve learned to distrust words that end in tion and ance and ious. Good writing, I’ve come to see, doesn’t correlate with long words.
Fire up the evaporator, I tell myself, boil it down.