(Photo by Dawit Rezenè.)
Last fall was a tough time for me. The memoir I had worked on for years was rejected by all the agents I sent it too. The new website I had devoted much of a year and countless dollars to had not, as hoped , saved my business. Instead it had cast me into a maelstrom of social media marketing, search engine optimization and Google adwords that made me no money and made me crazier by the day. Worst, one of my best friends was dying.
Gloom stalked me daily. With the new year it did not give up. I found temporary solace in blogging, in the company of Mrs. Muse, and in my hot tub.
In February I thought our annual pilgrimage to my beloved city of San Francisco might fix my mood. But despite the bright spot of lunch with Linda Seccaspina, I returned home still in a funk.
The time had come for desperate measures. SSSRIs? Vegetarianism? Vodka? LSD??? No. Writing another book.
I’d been kicking around a psychological thriller called Oculus for a few years. I started a third draft and in one day my mood lifted to normal. Which is to say about 2/3 dysthemia and 1/3 lit up with whatever happens to be my latest obsession. In this case, the book. Working on it is the reason I’ve been scarce around these parts lately.
I finished the third draft last Friday. The next day I experienced a rare thing in my many decades of artistic endeavors.
I am happy to report that unlike Archemedes I did not leap from my bath and run naked through the streets screaming “Eureka!” That would have been at my age unsightly, not to speak exhausting, as I live five miles from the one street in town. And of course I had not discovered a principle that would become a boon to mankind. Still, I had discovered something of value in my writing.
What I broke through was an aspect of one of the most vexing problems of long form writing: how to see the forest for the trees. The forest being the book, the sentences the trees.
Constructing solid, clear sentences requires intense concentration. At best my awareness of anything other than this sentence is limited to blurred glimpses of the surrounding sentences in a paragraph. I can’t see the chapter, let alone the book.
Painters have it relatively easy. They work up close on details then stand back and see how their latest effort serves the whole. It only takes a second. The same is true of musical composition, at least in its modern computer form: at any time you can instantly shift from the bass part you’re writing, or the section you’re orchestrating, hit “play” and hear the whole piece.
The crucial part of this shift from action to observation is not the visible exterior part – standing back from the easel, or hitting “play.” It’s the shift in the artist’s brain, from a state of flow to one of critical observation. From right brain to left. From play to work.
But how to stand back and see one’s writing? Read it, of course. Except that’s impractical when writing a book. You can’t read the whole book in between writing each sentence or paragraph. Many read chapters right away after reading them; I prefer to wait until the while thing is done.
I was on the cusp of doing just that last Saturday. Then I remembered how in previous readings of drafts I had been unable to restrain my impulse to start fixing things. Before I knew it I was not reading, but re-writing. I never got to see the forest because the moment I set foot in it I became tangled in a mass of brush and thorns and misshapen trees. The experience was so annoying that I started hacking away. I soon forgot about the forest altogether.
I was about to start reading when I had not a thought, but a mere impulse. To read fast.
And so I did, completing the book in a couple of days.
Within pages I could sense the breakthrough happening. Something about the velocity with which I read did an unexpected thing. It spun me out of my own orbit. I was no longer me reading my precious story, laughing at my bad puns, embracing those “darlings” we writers are properly instructed to mercilessly slay. I was a stranger. Not a writer, but a reader. Reading it as if for the first time, trying to follow the story. Wanting to get hooked. Hating being confused. Afraid of being bored.
My experience was that of stumbling over all sorts of crap. Too much description. Irrelevant details. Unnecessary sub-plot. Characters that either needed to assume flesh-and-blood or get lost. An important point that couldn’t possibly require 200 words to make. And that jumble of a paragraph? The writer needed to lay off the dope and stick to coffee.
I noted all of these criticisms quickly as I read. I tried to ignore the small stuff: awkward sentences, bad word choices and clichés, not to speak of spelling and grammar. All that will be easy to fix later.
It took a week to rough in the changes. Let me be clear: I am not advocating working fast as some kind of super-efficient writing method. The next part is necessarily long: editing, polishing and re-writing. But I’ve glimpsed that forest.
* As small evidence that my writing has evolved, or at least toned down, in the seven years that I’ve been practicing it, I offer the following:
Seven years ago I would written: B R E A K T H R O U G H!!!
Four years ago I might have written: Breakthrough!!!
Today I hemmed and hawed long before reluctantly allowing myself a single exclamation mark, but not in the title. Now I get a big gold star.