Try, Try Again

Whatever works for you, I tell my students.  There’s no one way to write, no hard-and-fast rule that guarantees success, as much as we want one.  And yet, certain koan-like statements have made it onto my bulletin board or refrigerator.  My current favorite, from Samuel Beckett quoted by Colum McCann a year or so ago in the New York Times:  “Try. Fail.  Try again.  Fail better.”

In my writing classes at UC Berkeley Extension, I emphasize process, the messy trajectory of moving a piece from first draft to polished prose.  So, last July, when Jane Anne Staw mentioned “process” as the fifth component of her talk on the five components of a writing practice, given during the weeklong Fiction Intensive, I nodded and glanced around the room to see that my students were paying attention.  I’d been making the point all week in morning workshop, to a writer frustrated that he’d already revised his story twice and wasn’t that enough?, and to another who expected her readers to make connections not yet clear – or even present – in her chapter.

Jane Anne used the word “iteration,” suggesting that any draft worth its salt has four stages:  generating the raw material; mining the gold; shaping it; and then, editing for sentence rhythm.  And that doesn’t yield publishable story, or novel, or memoir – that just gets you through one draft.

I just started reading Proust, in the new Lydia Davis translation from Penguin.  I’m about twenty pages into Swann’s Way, and can see why one editor to whom Proust sent his manuscript wrote back:  “I don’t see why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep.”  The sentences are long, their subjects often separated from their verbs by stacks of modifying clauses.  Reading one of them feels like climbing an elaborate staircase with many, many landings.  You think you’re at the top – but no, not yet!  Another flight remains!  I can only imagine the process Proust underwent, the iterations and drafts.  Apparently, he rarely left his cork-lined room on the boulevard Haussmann.  A typesetter’s nightmare, he crossed out sentences and pasted in new ones to his proofs, “not a single line out of twenty” remaining as originally written.

David Vann wrote a terrific novel called Caribou Island, with the gutsiest ending I can remember reading.  In a recent interview for The Millions, Vann says how he spend ten years writing his first book, Legend of a Suicide; publication took another twelve years.  That’s process.  In the interview, Vann eschews the idea of Post-its over the desk, or working from outlines.  To the question of trying to “attain some kind of perfection,” Vann replies “Fuck no!”

How would Proust have answered the question?  Does it matter?

We get mixed up, or I do, in applying any one writer’s technique as a formula.  Even the gentlest guideline about “process” can become codified.  Writing is a strange, intuitive, surprising mess, like life itself, and while we can break it down into iterations and drafts and pencil-and-paper and inputting-on-the-computer and index cards and Post-its, these things can throw up barricades too.

I spent one November in Virginia, at a writers’ and artists’ colony.  For my studio, I was given the Corncrib, a funny-shaped one-room ark of a building, set in the middle of a courtyard, with a leak over the single bed and windows high in the canted wall over my desk, through which I watched the light in the trees.  I’d brought colored pens and index cards with me that month, and a plan of gathering some 300 pages of legal-pad scribbling into a cohesive narrative.  I made charts, and pinned index cards in vertical columns and horizontal rows.  I used brown ink for one character, blue for another, green for a third, and so on, drawing lines of connection on ever-messier cards.

Did it help?  I don’t know.  Was it process?  Sure.  Is my novel published?  Nope.  I finished that draft, but found I still had another – and yet another – to make, before my characters were free.  And I’ve never again used that colored-pen technique, although I’ve kept the pens.

Those of us who like control can cleave too tightly to plans, can stifle our characters with preset notions of what they’re going to do.  And yet isn’t it helpful to jot down an idea of where you see Christopher going with that shovel?  Can’t narrative trajectory plotted on graph paper help give us a notion of where we need a little more tension, or a little less?

What’s worked for you?  Where have you failed better?

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