Cut for the Dog: A Revision Tale

by Sebastian Matthews

In a recent creative nonfiction class, one of the students wrote a long, erudite essay about trail walking. Along the way, James talked about his relationship to his dog, tourism, fishing, literature about walking and nature, his friend in the Marines, holiness, prayer beads, etc. It was an impressive work. Nevertheless, the writer believed he was being too preachy and that he was getting bored by his own voice. He had a point; the work might have benefited from being cut back. But what? Where?

Partly joking, I offered: “Cut for the dog.” It being the pandemic, the class was on Zoom, so I watched as the dozen workshoppers reacted to my comment. A few smiles, a few frowns, lots of blank looks. The writer didn’t seem happy. “You mean cut out all my musings and focus on the dog?” “Yes and no,” I said.

I had to think fast. I didn’t want to offend James and make him lose hope in his essay. He was already prone to tossing out everything he wrote as “trash.” (It’s like “polishing a turd,” he said at one point.)

“No, I am not suggesting the dog is more interesting than you. Yes, I do think your connection to the dog, and how you two move along the trail and down into those fishing holes, is the most dynamic aspect of the piece.”

The drama in the essay came mostly from the fact that all the new tourist hikers in the area were scaring away the fish. The narrator and his dog knew where to find the hidden spots and how to behave to allow the fish to come out of hiding. (I learned from James the amazing term “resting the pool,” which means exactly what it sounds like.)

A few nodding heads. A deep frown from the writer. I decide to let it—well, rest. A few weeks passed, and it was time for the writers to select a two-to-three page section of their essay to 1) read aloud to the group, and 2) include in a course PDF anthology.

James hadn’t gotten to revising his piece and asked me to just pick a section for him. I remembered the “cut for the dog” remark from earlier and cut away everything in the essay but the scenes with James and his dog. It came to about three pages.

The night of the class, James read the piece to a rapt Zoom audience. Everyone agreed: the holiness and connectedness he talked about in the cut “tell” sectionst—referencing Thoreau, Muir, Carson, Berry—were implicit in the scenes by the river, with the dog. For the most part, they didn’t miss the excised material. James seemed skeptical.

At the end of the reading, as the group talked about each other’s work, I tried one last time with James.
“Now,” I told him, “you can go back in and connect key portions of the essay that have been cut out and re-attach them to these scenes by the river. Use only the best, most powerful parts and find ways to weave them into your walk.”

James nodded his head, still skeptical but not closed down.

I don’t know if he ended up trying this. He might have just put the piece away—for a while, for good. But I am positive that if he does go back and tries to restore portions of that longer essay to this new, stripped down draft, he might come up with a beautiful hybrid. That “cutting for the dog” might have been just what he needed.

Sebastian Matthews’ latest books are a memoir in essays, Beyond Repair: Living in a Fractured State (Red Hen Press), and a hybrid collection of poetry and prose, Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision (Red Hen Press), an Independent Publisher’s Book Award winner. His other publications include two books of poems, the memoir In My Father’s Footsteps (W.W. Norton & Co.), and the collage novel The Life & Times of American Crow. Matthews is the recipient of a North Carolina Writers Grant and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference’s Bernard de Soto Fellowship in Nonfiction. Along with Stanley Plumly, he edited Search Party: The Collected Poems of William Matthews (Houghton Mifflin), which was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Matthews serves on the board of trustees for the Vermont Studio Center and on the advisory board for Callaloo. He is the host of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a music and talk show broadcast from Asheville, NC, and livestreamed at He leads workshops for the Great Smokies Writing Program and UNC Asheville, and offers classes on occasion at the Flat Iron Writers Room.