Thursday, March 26, 2009

Work in Progress: The Old Switcheroo

While I was in residency at VCCA, I was working on a new novel, writing pages and pages of very rough, first draft material. When I had a bad writing day, it was because I couldn’t think of what might happen next once they were all at the big party, or I got stymied by my characters: Who were they? What would they do in this situation? Why would they do (or not do) that particular thing? I was focused on Big Questions, and the writing itself was allowed to suffer. I relied heavily on my favorite trick, adding the word MORE when I knew I’d want to add in some more stuff later but didn’t want to think of it at that moment. Or, I’d write a crappy, dull sentence (i.e. “He stood there and smiled at her”) and then type in BETTER, to remind myself—as if I wouldn’t notice!—that I needed to improve that sentence when I revised. The point was to move along, move forward.

During this part of the process, a good writing day was really exciting: I’d figure out the answer to some bold question…Oh, so that's how his mother died and why he’s struggling with his wife. Oh, so that's why she married this dud husband. On a good day, it was nothing but the click-click-click of puzzle pieces snapping neatly into place in my head, giving me a lovely vision of the beautiful book in my head.

As always, there were probably more bad days than good days, but the good days were so good, and so genuinely exciting, that they helped me coast along through the bad days. “I’ll figure this out if I just sit here long enough,” was my mantra on the bad days, “didn’t I just so brilliantly figure out that really big thing yesterday?”

That was then.

Now, back home, I’ve decided to revise some of those pages. I had reached a point in the forward narrative where I wanted to step back and think some more, assess what I had, before pushing to the end, so my decision to switch into another part of the process made clear, logical sense.

Unfortunately, what makes sense logically can be hard emotionally. I’m facing an unexpected problem—unexpected because usually I absolutely love revising. It’s the first draft stuff that’s so hard, I always say, I like tinkering and crafting and making everything “perfect.” But I’m finding that this 180 degree switch in the way my mind needs to think has been rough. Moving forward vs. making the details perfect.

Now, a bad day is starting at sentences that are bad and trying to think of yet another way to describe someone, say, walking across the room—without sounding like I’ve digested a thesaurus. (How often do people in real life “amble” or “saunter” anyway?) Now, a bad day is coming up upon MORE and BETTER on my screen…again and again and again.

In contrast, a good day is…well, figuring out a character can “edge over to the far wall” and lean against it, instead of walk across the room. That’s fine…but it’s not really as a grand of a feeling as before; it’s not much to coast along on, especially when scooting the computer cursor down a few lines will reveal—yet again—someone “walking” somewhere. Augh!

As always, patience in writing is everything, and I’m sure I’ll get my revising mojo back eventually. In the meantime, you can imagine me staring at sentence after sentence, making them BETTER by adding MORE and desperately willing myself not to jump screens to see what important email message I may have received in the past 45 seconds when I last checked.

I’ll give the final word to Rilke, in one of my favorite writing quotations:

“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come…patience is everything.”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.