I have been meaning to write something on my progress here for a few months, but for some reason I’m having a difficult time formulating what it is exactly I want to say. Not that I usually know what I’m going to say before I sit down to write one of these blog posts, but usually I have an urge to say something or, more precisely, a question that rises to consciousness and requires answering. When and if I start to write it’s because I know the question and suspect I have an answer somewhere in this old trunk which just needs fishing out. I’m not sure what the trouble is this time, whether it’s that I don’t know the question yet or whether I know the question but can’t find the right trunk. Anyway, the point of this, and maybe all my posts on novel writing, is to, if nothing else, find a language to describe the experience of the novel.
The novel itself is going well. I’ve written many more pages than I can use, and I’ve got a working draft of about 115 finished pages, which means they are in order, more or less as I want them, with few significant problems. The rest is like swiss cheese: it’s there, but there are holes, too. Likely, I’ll have to revise or completely re-write a good portion of what remains to be written. But it’s a different process now. Now I know where I’m going and I’m not just generating material. I’m no longer learning what the novel wants to be. There are surprises still. Many. But the work I’ve done so far has provided answers to some of the biggest questions, things like: voice, structure, themes, character, etc. I’m happy with the result, and have learned at least this about the novel. I prefer revising long narrative fiction to revising lyric poems.
Here’s the difference.
When writing a lyric poem (at least, this is true for me), even a lyric poem part of a longer sequence, the discovery process, that is, the process of revision, happens in the act of composition. That is, I learn the answer to the question in the act of writing. Harold Bloom talks about overhearing yourself, when he talks about Shakespeare’s genius. You don’t have to be highfalutin about it, though, and sketch out a theory of poetry to know what therapists and analysts have known since Freud. Talk long enough and you’ll hear the source of your problem. Poetry, which isn’t therapy, works in a similar way. The revision that takes place, when it is truly a re-seeing, then, is a revision of the thing speaking and, finally, listening. A poem, too, when it is good, offers an opportunity to do the same kind of listening the poet has done. When Rilke says, “You must change your life,” he’s talking to himself, to you and to me. A poet can fiddle and futz with a poem if she likes, and as long as it doesn’t fundamentally alter the original discovery, she’s doing no harm, but far more fruitful a practice, I’ve found, when revising a poem is to begin again. Ask the question again, listen for the answer, which this time might be clearer or, ideally, more eloquently put. Eloquence, finally, is the mastery of the art of poetry, where the discoveries are done, the theory of poetry made law, and what remains is, as Wallace Stevens puts it, plainly to propound.
Fiction, as far as I can tell, is different, or has been different for me, so far. There are the same or similar kinds of discoveries while composing a chapter, a section, a scene, a line, but more often than not I find myself having to correct myself. In a poem, this kind of second guessing would be death. Poetry relies on the nerves, but with fiction the nerves are borrowed. Memory is a liar, the imagination a coconspirator. Therefore, it is in the revising process where the major discoveries are made. It is in a more traditional understanding of revision, where I find the answers to the questions I want to ask and find answers for.
What I’m describing here may be a byproduct of narrative forms. Tell a story and, to make reality more friendly to the storytelling, you fib, stretch the truth, lie. The hope is that that lie serves some higher purpose. This is why arguments about genre, whether a writer’s work should be sold as a novel, a memoir, an autobiographical novel are silly to any serious writer. Each of these genres, or sub-genres depending on how you classify them, offer certain expectations to the readers and certain freedoms and restrictions to the writer. Still the best works remain unclassifiable. Some of the tug I feel while composing is toward genre expectations and away from originality. That is to be expected, I guess. The far more troubling pull, however, is the one which is the danger with any retelling. Again, I’ll go back to the therapeutic model, where the truth is kept from the speaker until he overhears it. Perhaps this is why the theater, especially Shakespeare’s plays, offer a vision of reality very close to the one we experience, maybe too close. There the characters find themselves in the same predicament as us. They act and speak and think in one world, while the real world, the fact of it, the truth, witnesses in horror. Or maybe she laughs. The hope for the speaker is that he discovers the truth. Too often that truth comes too late, too often it breaks his heart.
What I appreciate most about this process is what happens over the long haul. The more I engage the process of writing, the more willing I am to re-see what I’ve done, the closer I get to the truth. It feels like the focusing of a lens, the cooking of a sauce. The experience of the art object leads to a judgement. Yes or no. This is or is not the truth. Maybe it’s more like that game we used to play as children. What we seek is hidden. We move around, at first blindly, searching, guided only by a friendly third party, who can only tell you whether you’re hot or cold. The closer you get, the hotter. The further away, the colder. I feel hot right now. But this is where the real work begins. My ears must be pricked, my steps more careful, more deliberate. When the game began, it didn’t matter which direction I moved as long as I moved. Now that same attitude would bring me further from the prize. Go slowly, pay attention, be calm, it’s near. This is the best advice, the only advice.