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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, April 23, 2005

the perils of reading

Up at 7:00, leaving Kimmie asleep. Unusually, she had been out last night at the North Shore Winter Club, celebrating a surprise 60th-birthday party for a coworker, and had got home sometime after I collapsed in bed at 11:20 p.m. I made coffee and came down to work on notes, just as on a weekday.

More notes from the Julius Caesar chapter of Suetonius, and I opened my chapter 15 notes to type some thoughts in there, feeling restless and wanting to get ahead on my project. I had typed three short paragraphs when Kimmie came down to recount her wonderful time of last night, including much dancing and slipping on soap-film from the bubble machine and landing painfully on her tailbone. That's my Kim: can always be counted on for a pratfall.

Wanting to keep project-energy flowing, I suggested reading chapter 13. Kim said yes. So I read the chapter aloud while Kimmie drank her second cup of coffee and I had a glass of grapefruit juice. It was OK, but for me there is almost always a feeling of letdown when I read out my work. I tried to describe the feeling to Kimmie:

"It's as though you do all this work, and then are disappointed to discover that it's not that good yet. You've done eighty percent of the work, but have only got thirty percent of the quality of the finished product. After a rewrite, you do just a little work, and get a big boost in quality. That's my favorite stage. It's like editing a film."

In filmmaking they say that the finished movie is never as good as the rushes, and never as bad as the answer print. After the chaos of production, the rushes (first print of what you shot) tell you that you have a movie, and there is a feeling of triumph. At the first answer print, you're expecting to see the finished product, but are disappointed to find some remaining glitches, and, more deeply, that the end-film is not the thing you envisioned when your first read (or wrote) the script. Well, in writing, it seems to be the reverse: the "rushes" of the first draft is a disappointment, but the "answer print" of a couple of revisions later is usually much better. Small problems really damage a piece of writing.

Although I woke in a good, positive mood about my book, I found that after the reading I was depressed. I felt lethargic and even nihilistic, wondering what's the point? What's the point of trying to arrange words on a page? Why did Robert Graves sweat over translating Suetonius? Who cares?

Kimmie, whose own mood is so much improved, cajoled me into joining her to do our errands out in the warm spring sunshine. To the library, garden center, water store, grocery store, and home. I felt--feel--much better.


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