the flame’s lover –
The pitiful dead
cry back to us from the fire, cold in
the fire, crying out – wanting to be chaffed
those that have written books
We read: not the flames
but the ruin left
by the conflagration
William Carlos Williams, Paterson, Book Three, Part II
Since the date of my retirement, my principal activity has been an attempt to write a novel. I’ve long wanted to do so, and when presented with the twin gifts of time and the advice that retirement is best enjoyed in the pursuit of a passion, I began writing what has come to be entitled Fortunate Son.
I am now at a place where the work is largely done, although there is still one new scene added during my last pass through which is calling out to me with the possibility that I could have made it so much more than it now is. I will go back to that scene as soon as I feel there is enough distance between when and the moment of its creation for me to have acquired enough perspective to see it both as an entirety and as an integral piece of a finished work.
Perhaps the first thing I learned from my attempt is that writing is a stream flowing from a faucet that will not end until the author sees fit to turn it off. As Yogi Berra once famously said, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” You can keep writing as long as you like; there is no one to tell you to stop, except yourself. There is always something to be edited – entire scenes to be added, deleted, or reworked; a single word to be tossed aside for another that is more pointed, more appropriate to the desired mood or action; some phrase or other that is far too prevalent throughout your work, and needs to be trimmed away ruthlessly; a reconsideration of every single word and scene in appraisal and reappraisal of whether or not it serves your goal for the finished piece; constant checking on dates and facts, both those that are unique to the novel’s timeline and those that are historical and real.
Writing a novel requires imagination, dedication, discipline, ruthlessness, and hard work. Oh, and courage too! Nothing is more important than the courage to edit your own work, and there is nothing that requires more courage than deleting those three thousand words you wrote over a year ago and believed in so ardently at the time of their creation when you’ve finally arrived at the realization that they don’t advance your purpose in any material way. You hit the delete button, and bandage the resulting wound by imagining that the deleted scene might become a short story in its own right or an entry in a blog dedicated to the novel filed under the category of “Scenes That Failed To Make The Final Cut.” But you leave that decision for some later date, because you still have a lot more work to do.
My goal has always been to see if I could write something in which I could take personal pride. I am a hard taskmaster when it comes to anyone’s effort, never wanting anything less than the best anyone is capable of. The mother of a mother/daughter team who once worked for me complained, after I had urged her daughter to far greater effort than she had been displaying, that my chief character flaw was that I always expected everyone else to do their best work at all times, and wasn’t I aware that some people are mere mortals?
I plead guilty to the charge, especially when it comes to myself. That is why I am now in the twelfth draft of Fortunate Son, and somewhere around the thirtieth complete read through of the draft (both silent and aloud), each one prompting more tinkering, large and small. Even the title is new, only coming after a suggestion from my editor, and only after he and I argued about it through several email exchanges and on the phone. I started with Son, fascinated with its simplicity and the way it compelled the story’s organization. I finally bowed to his suggestion after discovering how I could put to good use, in the concluding scene of the novel, the irony suggested by the revised title in order to provoke the kind of curiosity that I hope a reader will have about its characters in the aftermath of a turned-off tap.
Having exacting standards for myself is also the reason I hired two separate professional editors, each of whom helped improve the work. I sought out the first editor by reviewing an on-line list of professional editors working in the Northwest; the second appeared in my life by magical serendipity and offered himself as editor. While the first was beneficial and gave me the lens I needed for a good concluding chapter, I found the second to be the real deal, the kind of teacher I always remember with great pleasure: tough, critical teachers who believe in you and whose goal is to improve your work rather than belittle your efforts, who teach you the basics, who give you the necessary tools to build upon their lessons through the dint of your own hard work and imagination. So when I finished making Dan Pope’s specific edits last month and re-read his extensive hand-written critical comments again for the second, third, and fourth times, I began making my own additional changes that fit the rhythm he helped me establish. After all, his remarks came as a result of a first read; he didn’t have the luxury of a thirtieth when he wrote his commentary there on my draft.
A good editor/mentor is like an experienced farm worker who can teach you how to use a two-handed scythe properly. When you first pick up the tool, its use seems obvious and you believe you will master it easily. What could be so difficult about using something so primitive? But the secret is in the swing of the thing, and only the right rhythm makes its use effortless. Pedestrian users struggle and sweat to achieve half of the results of a master; they no doubt put the implement away in disgust after one or two ham-handed attempts, not believing in the merits of practice. But gracefulness in the use of anything never comes without repetition.
I am not certain I’ve yet become as graceful as I would like to be, but, in comparison to its predecessors, the twelfth draft of Fortunate Son feels much tighter, more rhythmic, and complete. I may well yet tinker a bit more after critical input from others, but if I were forced to lay down my pen at this moment I would feel that my original goal has been achieved. I have a credible product, over which I have labored for almost three years. But, who knows? Perhaps the twentieth draft will prove to be the one.
The pleasure in the act of writing comes from seeing your imagination take form on the page. The creative fire that William Carlos Williams wrote about in Paterson, Book Three is the true joy for an author, and the product of that creative spark is, indeed, nothing more than its left over ashes. Novel-writing is different from other forms of artistic creation in that it is a marathon rather than a sprint; its final result can only be glimpsed through the fog of the future by means of dogged determination. The act of writing this blog entry will take up to three hours, but that is a mere sprint when compared to the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours that have gone into Fortunate Son.
And like any marathon effort spread over long years, you approach the same material differently each and every day – you might be tired or well rested; you might be depressed or effervescent; you might be angry or thrilled; you might be clueless or on fire. So you keep at it like a sculptor working at a block of marble, reviewing and editing and polishing and honing until enough bulk, enough rough edges and ragged bits or burrs have been smoothed away and something approaching a polished piece is achieved. And even then there is a temptation to niggle and jiggle just a little bit more.
Now what? I don’t know. The publication process is an unenjoyable chore at best. The question is whether I need a third party to validate my own sense of satisfaction, and I’m not at all convinced that I do. Or is that just fear speaking? As hard as I am on myself, will others – those in the know – be even harder?