Friday, December 7, 2012

Writing Slowly

or, "Sometimes, it's hard to love revision" (to be sung to the tune of "Stand By Your Man")

Lately, I've been knee deep in project revisions. Final edits for Borrowed Horses went to my publisher Monday, and I'm back to working on New Brighton, the novel I took to Sewanee Writers' Conference this past summer. Back at the end of July, I thought I'd be able to come home, knock out the revision to the book in a month of so, tinkering and tightening, so that I could begin querying before school got too crazy. As fall grew older and we headed into November, my students inspired me with their NaNoWriMo writing goals (a 50,000 word novel draft in a month), and I thought perhaps I could finish my revision before December hit. Now, I'm wondering if a goal of finishing before the end of Christmas break is overly optimistic.

The thing is, though, I really, really like the new stuff I'm writing for the novel, even though it's taking me so much more time to write it than I'd planned. I'm taking more emotional risks. The scenes are more immediate and intense. Over the course of my writing life, I've heard a lot of writers say you have to "trust the process," and for the first time in my life, I feel like I might know what that means.

(The picture on the sidebar is what I look like when I'm outside playing in the snow. The picture above is what I look like when I'm writing.)

My students know that I'm a big believer in the hand-written journal. I make them all keep one as part of their fiction writing course grade. The want to type them on computers and iPads, and I refuse. For one semester only, they have to try things my way. "Hand writing accesses a different part of your brain," I tell them, both because I know this to be true and because in this NaNo world, they need someone to remind them to slow down.

This year, I've been reminding myself that as well, using my journal far more extensively as I revise than I ever have in the past. And you know what? I was right. It may feel slow and inefficient to close the computer, but most of the stuff I'm most proud of in this re-write is coming straight out of the journal.

This morning, for instance, I was working on a scene in which the protagonist's mother returns to work for the first time in twenty years. Reading the scene on the computer screen, I could tell it was happening too quickly. A mother returning to work is a big thing. It needed space to become that, but I couldn't see where to put it in the draft as written. So instead of trying, I highlighted the passage on the screen ("he knew she was nervous"), giving myself an idea to riff off of and a place to come back to, and then I closed my laptop and opened my journal and wrote for an hour about only that one idea in that one line. And then I opened my laptop again and wrote this post. Why? Because the journal stuff is *good.* Because I now have the details to make the crisis real. Because I'm excited again. Because when I open my journal, I'm discovering, and it's what I love best about writing and what makes it live and breathe.

My fellow fiction writer Matt Bell posted this quotation on Facebook this morning:
"I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity. Time can give you a good critical perspective, and I often have to go slow so that I can look back on what sort of botch of things I made three months ago. Much of the stuff which I will finally publish, with all its flaws, as if it had been dashed off with a felt pen, will have begun eight or more years earlier, and worried and slowly chewed on and left for dead many times in the interim." —William Gass
 I'm going to sign off with that quotation, one I hope to hold in my mind throughout the end of the revision of New Brighton--however long it takes me.