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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, January 12, 2007

learning the tortuous method

Finally, yesterday, I reached a point where I said, What the hey, and opened up my long-neglected chapter 25 to start writing in it again.

It happened when I came up with a new way of opening the chapter--a new point of attack. It's not that the idea is especially brilliant or original, but it has energy: that feeling of jumping into something that is already going on, so important in launching a story or any section of one. I know that the way forward is in not taking things so seriously. But at heart I am a serious person, with serious purpose, so the task then is to find a way to express my seriousness in a way that is carefree.

I know that when I read my notes or my journal I sometimes think, "Just write like this, you goofball." Those things I just write as a kind of stream of consciousness--as I'm drafting this blog-post now. If you have a gift of fluency, as I have, plus the practice of having written millions of words, it's possible to just let it flow.

To some extent, I have acquired my painstaking writing method as I've aged. I remember back in elementary school that I would just sit down and write, and fill pages pretty easily without too much double-checking or revision. My friend and classmate Brad, who was a very good writer (and now a tropical ecologist, I think, or something like one), was the opposite: he toiled over his writing, chewing his long pointy plastic pens down to their brass refills--and then chewing the refills till they became squeezed, dented, bent strips of metal. He had the unusual distinction of handwriting that was pressed even deeper into the page than mine was--and mine was and is deeply pressed. Sheets of ruled looseleaf became curled and worked under his touch like leaves of hammered metal, covered with the signs of the ferocity of his concentration: rich blue-black ink in a relatively large hand but sharply slanted, with much, much heavy crossing-out, arrows pointing to where text was to be moved, small tottering columns of printed or cursive letters in the margins or snaking between existing lines, and maybe the odd large word of judgment pointing to a crossed-out section, such as "BAD!!!".

For Brad, writing was a physical act, something that used his physical energies and had concrete physical effects. He obviously suffered while writing, and it showed on the paper. He would procrastinate assignments, and then wind up writing long into the night at home, sitting at his kitchen table among his orchids and pet birds until 2:00 a.m. For him there was no such thing as a single draft. His first draft would be an unreadable jumble. His final draft would always be a longish, well-argued, well-expressed essay that showed evidence of its tortured birth in its very polish and the clear current of thought.

Before Brad, I was a one-draft guy. Lazy and self-confident, I would just sit down and start writing, with minimal crossing-out--and the next day hand in the result. But Brad's laboriousness made me feel a little bit inferior, a bit envious. Even though I got excellent marks for my writing, I started to worry that I was lightweight. I became concerned that I was too undemanding of myself and therefore handing in stuff that was not really first-rate. I wanted to have pages that showed the evidence of my thought-process, that showed traces of creative suffering!

So, a little self-consciously at first, I started to "work" my writing more: more crossing-out, more marginalia, more drawing boxes around paragraphs and sending them via arrows to other pages. For the sake of a better final result, I gave up on the idea of submitting first drafts. I wanted to be able to flip through the first draft to show what I'd gone through, the way Brad did, casually but also in self-disgust. I wanted to become a proper writer, dammit!

Well, I did. My process was never as tortuous as Brad's (thank god), but by subjecting my effort to more criticism, as he did, I came up with better stuff, a better final draft. And I enjoyed the sensuousness of my battle-scarred first drafts, the way the paper became deformed under the heavy, backtracking touch, so that ten handwritten pages created a sheaf as thick as 20 clean sheets, each page stiffened with the quantity of ink and the deformation of its cellulose fibers. The pages now rattled when turned; they were brittle with heavy wear; they were fatigued. I loved that kind of page, and I still do.

Well, my process has become fully tortuous. I no longer use longhand; now it manifests itself in the length of the notes documents I do--my quantity is tortured. Now, though, it might be time to lighten up a bit. I'd like to set down my writing cross and take it easy again--just a little, just for awhile.


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