Our breath-collecting pause continues...
Trying to be an honest teacher of writing means continually reminding myself of how mysterious this whole deal is. The only thing I really know is what works for me, and that keeps changing all the time, even within a given writing day.
The temptation, because our art form is difficult and subjective, is to cling to a method, swear by a dogma, pin some pithy sayings over the old writing desk. (Mine are by Ed Ruscha and Kurt Vonnegut. And these two, below.)
In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and in various interviews, and in these posts, I’ve talked ad nauseum about my method, which involves, supposedly, a ton of revision, done intuitively and iteratively. And that really is my method.
Except when it’s not. I’ve also finished stories with almost no revision. “Sticks,” which has (happily) taken on a little life of its own in anthologies, was basically written in one afternoon, at my engineering job, then lightly revised.
I talk a lot about discovering a story through a method described by Donald Bartheleme in his famous essay “Not-Knowing,” that involves having no assumptions or plans about your story before you begin. But there are also pieces of mine that I’d been working out in my mind for years. Before starting Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, I researched for decades and wrote and abandoned a play, and this lead me to the following simple “outline”: (1) “Lincoln goes into the graveyard, interacts with his son’s body. (2) Willie should leave the bardo and go on; he either does or he doesn’t.”
The story “Tenth of December” was more of a combo affair: a notion for a story came to me in a flash (“Guy with terminal disease goes into the woods to kill himself, then doesn’t”) and then, over the next couple of years, I’d find my mind spontaneously editing that notion. (“What stops him is…something, or someone.” “Someone wearing white…an angel.” “Not an angel, a kid…a kid in white.”). Finally, having arrived at “Guy with terminal disease goes into the woods to kill himself but is somehow stopped by a child wearing a white winter coat,” I wrote a first draft, then kept revising and expanding for the next two years.
So…anything can happen. A good result can be obtained in an infinite number of ways. Even as we energetically study stories and make observations about how they work, we want to remember this — or all of this craft stuff can harden into dogma. And dogma is the enemy because it gets in the way of presence – our ongoing attempt to see what’s actually on the page and intuit what it might be doing to an imaginary reader.
Method is just a means to an end and can be changed and discarded at will and articulating that method is not the point, not at all.
It’s kind of fun to articulate a method, but it’s extra; if a great book gets written and the author never says a word about how she did it, it’s still a great book and it’s still out there in the world. (I sometimes have to say to myself, “Was your dream as a kid to talk about writing or do it?”)1
Imagine someone whose life goal is “to look utterly radiant.” Although getting a solid night’s sleep might seem like a good place to start, it could also be that, for a particular person, staying out all night having a wild time could yield some utter radiance. If that person shows up at 6 a.m., not having slept, looking utterly radiant – well, there you go. It’s done. Method doesn’t matter.
So, yes, I have a method (revise endlessly), and enjoy talking about that method and sharing it, and I do believe that almost anyone can benefit from getting in better touch with her own inner editor.
On the other hand…
Check out this amazing virtual exhibit at the Morgan Library (thanks to Neil Pasricha for alerting me to this, and for being such a generous host in this interview I did with him last year): the manuscript of “A Christmas Carol,” which, according to the site, Dickens wrote “in only six weeks, during a period of intense creativity in fall 1843.” This is the first draft and the last – it’s 66 pages, in a single notebook, with some on-the-spot revisions (corrections, more like). That is: what you’re seeing is all the writing he ever did on this project; there were literally no earlier drafts.
In other words, Dickens just…sat down and wrote it. With (by my definition) no real revision. (Lots of intuition, no iteration.)
From the introduction: “The pace of writing and revision, apparently contiguous, is urgent, rapid, and boldly confident. Deleted text is struck out with a cursive and continuous looping movement of the pen and replaced with more active verbs—to achieve greater vividness or immediacy of effect— and fewer words for concision.”
I hope you’ll dig around in the manuscript and, in the comments, mention any edits you find particularly interesting, and tell us why. It’s a great way to learn something about Dickens’ talent, and about the small difference between a good word and the best one.
Looking up one of my favorite passages (on page 14 of the manuscript)…
"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faultered Scrooge who now began to apply this to himself.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive Ocean of my business!"
…I find that Dickens wrote it like this the first and only time, pretty much (he did misspell “faltered,” which makes me love him even more). He made a few small, very smart, tweaks along the way: inserted the phrase “who now began to apply this to himself” and, it looks like, did some tinkering with the wording of the ghost’s reply, replacing, it looks to me, two (?) occurrences of the word “goodness” (to eliminate the repetition); once with “mankind” and once with “benevolence.”
So, doing the math: sixty-six pages in six weeks means…about eleven handwritten pages a week. Giving him a weekend…a little over two pages a day, no rewriting, more or less off the top of his head = enduring masterpiece.
So, yes: anything can happen.
Especially, I guess, if you’re Dickens.
Which leads me to a second point.
One of the faulty (or “falty”) implicit assumptions of the vast Creative Writing Instruction Consortium (which I’ve been a proud member of since 1996, when I started teaching at Syracuse, and which I’ve lately really joined, with the publication of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain and this Story Club venture) is: craft is everything.
That is: anyone can become a published writer via the rigorous application of craft.
Of course, this isn’t true. There’s such a thing as talent. There are writers like Dickens, who can do unimaginably deep work seemingly on the fly. There are writers like David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith, capable of speaking off the cuff in highly developed and dazzling sentences that, typed up verbatim, would make better essays than most of us could write in a lifetime of trying.
There are writers who are naturally funny; writers who are just big people, who see things clearly and express themselves with great precision, naturally.
But there are also people like me, whose first drafts are hyperbolic and incoherent, whose main “talent” is the willingness and ability to read those first drafts and feel like throwing up, and who have a secondary talent of rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, trying (through revision) to eliminate or change the places that made them nauseous, and thus bring the story to some sort of higher ground.
There are many rooms in the mansion, in other words.
The work of “craft,” then, is, to find out which room is ours and how to get there. “Craft” is: whatever it takes to get you writing stories you love.
“Craft” may also encompass the act of admitting that it is possible that we belong to that group of writers for whom craft is never going to be enough, and that this is perfectly O.K. and, in fact, the admission of this possibility is an absolutely necessity if we’re going to do our best work, and thereby find out how good a writer we might become.
More about this next time.
And then, after that, the story by that “under-acknowledged American master” I promised in the last post, who is not Carol Bly or Toni Cade Bambara or Joy Williams or Grace Paley or Tillie Olsen (although we will be reading stories by all of these masters, in time, thus joyfully reversing the gust of maleness with which we have begun).
P.S. Ah, but before we close, a short aside on Barthelme, another dude, true, but also a strange, funny, wildly innovative genius, and, by reputation, a wonderful teacher too.
Here, again, is the link provided above to “Not-Knowing.”
The Library of Congress has a recording of Bartheleme giving a lecture on the method, at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on Apr. 25, 1983.
Until next time…
I remember, back when I first read Thomas Merton, having a similar realization about spiritual things. It’s nice to go to spiritual teachings and retreats and get empowerments and read books and memorize quotes but the real question is, “Has my way of being in the world changed for the better?”