The Laws of Subtraction

Guides to writing often contain conflicting advice, but there are a few ideas that have attained the status of orthodoxy.  Where novelists are told show don’t tell, academics or non-fiction writers are often advised to use detail to convey complex ideas. Although the genres of writing are very different, many writing handbooks mine similar veins.

And perhaps the greatest, most enduring, and most resonant writing advice of all concerns the laws of subtraction.

There are many ways writers talk about taking things away. We are told to kill our darlings, or to write shitty drafts, and then reduce your writing to its most basic message and start again. Good writing, we are often told, is good editing.

This afternoon I was thinking about another example of a type of suppression writers enact: discarding research.

Well, I wasn’t just thinking about it.

I was committing it.

Is there ANYTHING more painful to a historian than doing the work, successfully finding the sources, getting it right goddammit, only to realise this is not the work after all?* The energy my mind has been putting into salvaging something that I know is a wreck is amazing. This is not the work after all? How can I turn it into something worthwhile?

Here’s the problem.

I’ve been spending as much time as possible for the past few years looking for trials involving witchcraft suspicions in France from 1790-1940. When I started, I hadn’t thought very hard about what witchcraft is. If a newspaper mentioned a ‘witch’ (a sorcier, sorcière, jeteur/euse de sorts etc etc), that was good enough for me, and into the project it went.

Now, four years after first starting the work, I’ve developed a much tighter set of definitions. But some days, like today, I come up against a case I’ve already put a lot of work into, but which I now realise never actually mentions witchcraft in the strict(ish) sense of human beings causing supernatural harm.

The case I was looking at this afternoon is a really rich example from the 1890s of a community ripped apart by a brutal murder, and a subsequent cover-up coordinated by a powerful network of family connections. It ended up in my database of cases because the star witness – the man whose testimony led to the arrest of the murderers – was described in a contemporary newspaper account as a ‘witch’.

I’ve got amazing sources for this case: several national and local newspapers covered the trial in detail, and I recently traveled to the regional archives to photograph the criminal trial dossier.

But here I am, at the end of the afternoon, and I’ve realised I can’t use it. There’s simply nothing in there about witchcraft. I haven’t even seen anything in the witness statements gathered for the trial that mentions witchcraft at all. His reputation as a witch is like a floating detail, that somehow made it into one newspaper. It wasn’t important.

So this is it. The sharp end of that writing advice.

I know, I know, I know: the final witchcraft project will be shaped as much by the things I leave out as what I put in.

[Try to feel virtuous here.]

So this case, with its details of family feuds and village rivalries, just does not make the cut.

[Try… harder…]

You know. It is what it is. That’s what happens with research! I mean, REALLY, it’s amazing that even material this rich is getting discarded! Imagine how PURE the final project will be! They will build statues to this project! Your grandchildren will learn about its clarity of purpose in school! Graduate students will mainline this project after research seminars!

But still another little voice pipes up in my head: HOW will you get the credit for all that work you did which doesn’t make it into the final project?

Well that, my little interior monologue, is what a blog is for.


*There are many things more painful than this. But you know what? In this moment of making the ultimate sacrifice: I DON’T CARE

One thought on “The Laws of Subtraction

  1. publish this case on this blog with references to the primary sources then at least someone will know it exists.
    witchcraft = human beings causing supernatural harm – do you mean you are only including cases that involved maleifica?
    What about human beings using rituals to cause real harm because people expected it to – like the nocebo affect.? The magic wasn’t real but the affect was.


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