Ambit Creative

Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer for global Web content and print publications. She worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing, and is a fiction and nonfiction book editor, specializing in nonfiction and memoir. As a press correspondent and columnist, Adele writes for newspapers, magazines, blogs and literary journals. Her stories have appeared in The Circle, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Miranda Literary Magazine,,The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Trillium, the Italian-American literary journal Pyramid and an anthology for Fairfield University. She won Poetic Voices of America's editor's choice award, and presents the editing and writing workshops for libraries and other venues. She is a nominated member of Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Women. She's also working on a new novel. Visit her website at: Adele Annesi, Facebook, LinkedIn, Redroom, Twitter, and Word For Words.

“A Cricket in Her Hair”
An Encore Performance

It’s tempting to cut the odd bits of a story that don’t fit—a character’s idiosyncrasy, an unusual setting, a plot twist. Seemingly strange facets of a piece can distract without adding value, but when they’re valid and handled well, they can enhance the work by deepening an element: plot, character, or theme.

A couple of great examples of not cutting odd details appear in My Ántonia, a memoir-style novel published in 1918 and among the best by American writer Willa Cather. In this tale of early nineteenth-century immigrant families in rural Nebraska, Cather didn’t shy away from the peculiarities of the time or the people. In one instance, she drew attention to sunflowers growing along the roadway, even though they belong more in the hills of California or Italy. The unexpected flowers, transplanted into a harsh and unfamiliar climate, were like the Bohemian and other families who settled in the area—out of place, enigmatic, exotic—partly because you wouldn’t expect to see the flowers there nor would you expect them to survive.

The brilliance is that readers can’t help but feel the sunflowers’ “out of place-ness.” Even if you try to bypass them for something that seems more “in place,” you can’t ignore them. They’ve already registered on an emotional level. Why? Not just because it’s arresting to see sunflowers in the middle of nowhere, but because they’re like the similarly transplanted families, who brought with them their unique customs and cultures and took root. Without these people and the world they carried with them, the setting would have been comparatively desolate and unremarkable.

Symbols like these also serve another purpose: to elevate the characters beyond the ordinary. In their native Bohemia in central Europe, these families would have been few among many, small fish in a big pond. Now, the reader has a reason to remember and respect them. Empathy instantly registers how hard it was for them so far from home. In a dazzling stroke, like sunflowers in a barren place, the author restores a bit of dignity to them and their world. What a wonderful redemptive touch, without a heavy-handed message.

One example of memorable description is the scene in which Ántonia rescues a cricket from death. She does this in an unusual way (though it’s not strange to her). She hides the cricket in her

hair, under a scarf. The image again brings the reader up short. Yet, for Ántonia, a young girl at this point in the story, the cricket is a reminder of home in the form of an old woman in her hometown whom all the children called Grandmother. By way of Cather’s skilled description and expert weaving of Ántonia’s choice to save the cricket, an oddity reveals something about Ántonia, her culture, and her development as a young woman.

The sunflowers and the cricket are important to Cather’s story because they reveal the humanity and identity of German and Bohemian immigrants at a specific time in history. These written pictographs also provide a contrast between the new settlers and those who came before them, once immigrants themselves. The details show, without telling, their indispensable contributions to this part of the country just by being there.

Cather’s treatment of setting and character don’t necessarily mean that every quirky detail in our stories should be kept just because they’re unusual or because we’re fond of them. But the examples do make it easier to embrace the quirks and to help us understand when and how they advance the story.

This is where it’s important, from an editing perspective, to determine whether and when to cut. One way to decide is to ask yourself whether the unusual detail, character trait, setting description, or other quirk deepens the meaning of the story (theme), reveals something important about a main character, or moves the storyline (plot) forward. Ideally, it could accomplish all three. But the key is to be honest when answering the questions. If you’re not sure, mark the section with a note to work it out later—before you send the story off to a literary magazine, a literary agent, or an editor.

One reason Cather’s descriptions work so well is that each is instructive, revealing some truth, whether flattering or not, without being preachy. The descriptions also worked because they’re timeless. We still live in hardscrabble times; yet, we’re not the first to do so, as My Ántonia so beautifully shows.