Writing and Life are Both Messy
I am just beginning to sort the computer files and piles of papers, scraps, clippings, post its, index cards, notes to self, notes to others, tabs, baskets and boxes that overflow from my desk to the floor–the proud evidence of almost two decades of work to produce the final elegant draft of THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH (published June 2012). If you didn’t get an answer from me on something you sent, please be assured that when I come to the starred and underlined record of your request or letter, I will answer with apology and gratitude.
Perhaps you know a better way to write, but apparently I don’t. As many times as I set up long boards with timelines and story lines, real life would intervene. Anecdotes that I thought were so charming would fall out of the manuscript because they just didn’t hit the right note. Did I tell you that Michael was on the Bay Bridge when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, just three weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, by the way. It really was part of my story, first a bridge collapsing then a Wall being demolished but it lost its place in the tenth draft. At any rate, I sometimes felt bad that no matter how systematic I wanted to be, my writing had a mind of its own, and often a pretty chaotic one. The story isn’t linear because our minds are not linear. They move back and forth in time, but the readers have to be able to make some sense of the fragments we give them, yet get the passion that made up stay up night after night, year after year writing.
Then I read a great article in Vanity Fair Magazine (August 2011) about Joseph Heller and the writing of “Catch-22.” The title of his book has since become a common phrase in our language that means that whichever way you go, there’s always a catch. In his book, now considered one of the greatest anti-war books of all time, to get out of the army you have to be crazy, but if you know you want to get out, you can’t be that crazy. So there’s no way out for the main character, Yosarian. Catch-22. The book came out in 1962 when I was a student at the U. of Michigan and the a newcomer to the peace movement. We all walked around Ann Arbor saying “Catch-22” when we couldn’t make things work the way we wanted.
The very interesting article describes his editor’s process “working with at least nine different drafts, both handwritten and typed, often cutting sections from one draft and pasting them into another, leaving blank spaces in some of the handwritten drafts for typed paragraphs to be inserted later. A typed section was no closer to being finished… than a handwritten one; some of the typed paragraphs had been revised as many as three different times, in red ink, green ink, and pencil….”
It made me smile with relief. I thought maybe real writers were neater than me. And smarter. And knew what they were doing. But of course every writer has his or her own temperament and path. Just don’t assume the other guy has it all worked out neatly so you might as well give up now.
And by the way, life isn’t neat either. When my uncle told me that my father didn’t want to marry my mother “because he was still in love with Annalie who hadn’t gotten out of Germany,” that was all very simplistic, as though that sums up the tragedy of their marriage. But wait a minute. My father was in his twenties, a man with the kind of romantic temperament who (in my perception) had a way of idealizing what wasn’t there, and a disdain for the ordinary, practical. My mother came from a wealthy family and lost everything, but she had the gift of being realistic and practical. She made it work. She bore two children. She gave him a family. Who is really the hero/heroine in the story of this marriage? That could be a whole new post script to THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH.
So whatever your style, in life or writing, don’t think it all has to fit together. One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is editing too early, trying to smooth out the bumps and bruises right from the start. Often the energy, the zeitgeist lives in the raw and rough efforts that are uncensored. Anne Lamott tells it all, including the chapter on “shitty first drafts” in her groundbreaking and gracious book (1995) Bird by Bird. Her subtitle is: On Writing and Life. Maybe we can’t smooth out life in the first draft either. We need to live with faith in the process, obstacles faced over and over until the path clears. Not a mistake.
How’s your writing going, whether for yourself or others. I really want to know. Send us a comment about your style of working. Enjoy.