Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Oldies but Goodies, 3: In Praise of Discipline

While I’m teaching at Converse College in SC, I’m re-running some of my favorite posts about writing:

Posted on December 20, 2007

Work in Progress: In Praise of Discipline

I have been revising my novel in progress on and off since late September. This is (I hope) the final revision before sending my baby out into the world, so it’s not the time to say, “Oh, I’ll fix this later.” Later is NOW.

You may guess where this is going…there are several things to fix that I didn’t “feel like” fixing earlier, because they were too hard. There are things to fix that I didn’t know needed fixing until I got to the end of the manuscript and had the whole story (finally!) out in front of me. Some things I thought were fine until my fabulous writing group kindly informed me that, no, actually I was mistaken to think those things were fine; those things need serious fixing!

Basically, what I’m saying is that as much as I prefer revision to the empty terror of the first draft where I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, this revision right now is actually quite hard for me. It’s not a matter of wide swathes of change—new scenes, new characters, massive deletions, joyful red pen everywhere. Rather, it’s that type of revision where you know you need to come up with one or two sentences that are absolutely perfectly written, to fit exactly there between these two paragraphs, to convey a nuance to a character’s personality as they illustrate an important thematic thread, move the plot forward, AND set up things for the big reconciliation scene two chapters ahead. Hard, hard, hard. There are moments when I think I’d rather be digging ditches.

During those difficult moments, I find that the first place I want to turn is the refrigerator or the cupboard where sometimes there are potato chips. If there’s nothing there, I head to the internet (yes, those articles about Britney’s pregnant sister are very important). I have even been known to jump at the sound of the dryer dinging because folding laundry is preferable to the task at hand. Sick, sick, sick. But, perhaps not entirely unfamiliar to your “process.”

So it’s a struggle to stay focused, especially since there are many other activities beckoning at this time of year: cookies won’t bake themselves. Appropriate gifts for loved ones don’t select themselves (or pay for themselves either, come to think of it).

In the midst of all this internal and external distraction, I was working on a particularly troubling chapter that needed a great deal of work—I’m hoping it might be safe to say that this is the chapter that required the MOST work, but we’ll see. For several days, I tried to squeeze in my work around cookies, laundry, etc., figuring some writing is better than none (true). But it wasn’t going well, and finally I buckled down. I went to the library, which is the most intense place around here—everyone there is buried in their work; it’s hard even to get a carrel, and the place is spookily silent. It’s the kind of place where you’re embarrassed to get up after sitting at your desk for two hours straight because the person directly across from you hasn’t left their seat in all that time and had been sitting there before you arrived. So, needless to say, I focused on my work in the library. (I previously wrote about this very intense library here.)

The next day I turned off the internet for as long as I could stand it.

Then I let the laundry pile up. I didn’t jump to answer emails. I put off going to the post office to mail my packages. As much as possible, during my writing time, I tried to immerse myself in my hard chapter. I was disciplined.

My reward? Because I was much more present in the work, thinking about it and not letting myself get distracted with either the tediousness or the joy of daily life, I woke up one morning with the dialogue in my head for the most difficult part of the chapter—I jumped up and wrote it all down, several pages, just letting the words flow, deciding to worry later about making them perfect.

Later that day, I sat down and looked over my “vision.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was something I could move forward on. I worked on it that afternoon, fixing it, enhancing it, plugging it into the chapter. I made it “perfect.”

I’m not sure I believe in visions. But I do believe in the kind of discipline where when you show up and take your work seriously, your subconscious will take pity on you and do the heavy lifting: “Hey, dummy, see how you can get the father to have to make an impossible choice if he doesn’t go to the hospital first? Uh, isn’t that one of the important themes of your book? How about pulling that forward? Duh!” (I hope your subconscious is less surly than mine.)

And not only do I believe in that, I rely on it. You will figure it out, you will get through the hard parts, you will come up with those two perfect sentences that do everything you want and more. You will that is, if you keep working.


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