Tag Archives: Steinbeck quotes

Post #59: False Finish Lines

Dear Charles,

My writing goal for the summer was to finish the rough draft of my new novel Returning, and I’m happy to say that a few days ago, I did just that.  Hit the “final” key stroke on a book that, at this point, is 715 pages (222,500 words) long.  It’s longer and more ambitious, and therefore more of a mess, than anything I’ve ever written.  And when I say it’s a mess, I’m not going for charmingly self-depricating here.  It’s a mess.  A shifting POV, big-themed beast of a novel that would probably freak me out if I just picked it up randomly.  It’s a sprawling book that spans roughly thirty years in the lives of two main characters and is broken up into five “Sets,” a nod to the subject matter (much of which centers around Tennis).  The Sets move around in time and space and Point of View.  It’s not deliberately experimental or anything.  I couldn’t be experimental with a gun to my head.  But it’s a culmination of many  whims and literary curiosities that I’ve been building towards for a while now.

At this point, I’d love to forget what’s written on my favorite coffee mug at school.  It was a gift from a former intern of mine and it bears a Hemingway quote: “The First Draft of Everything is Shit.”  Thanks, Papa.  Of course he’s right.  But it’s important to know he wasn’t trying to be discouraging.  Hemingway respected all parts of the writing process.

Before I started Returning, I taped two quotes on the wall beside my desk where I would always see them.  Or, where I couldn’t hide from them.  The first is by Will Self, who said, “don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day.  This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get to down to the real work which is all in…the edit.”  The other is by John Steinbeck, who said “don’t think of literary form.  Let it get out as it wants to.  Overtell it in the matter of detail.  Cutting comes later.  The form will develop in the telling.  Don’t make the telling follow the form.”

These two notions were my twin mantras, and I read them each nearly every day before I set to work trying to bury them in subconscious, a scrim over everything I’d write that day.  I knew Returning would be big and complex and would benefit from letting go of my inner critic and just immersing myself in the process, as Will Self councils.  For the most part, I did that.  I resisted any editing along the way and cascaded boldly towards my goal.  Steinbeck’s advice was the harder to follow.  It was hard not to make the book form into a concept along the way.  I tried hard to let it be what it wanted to be, to overtell it, as he says, and the “Sets” concept grew organically along the way, but the master’s advice is slippery and more challenging to practice than it sounds on paper.  It requires a different kind of letting go.  But both are about preserving a writing process that is fluid, organic, quick.

The trouble with writing this way is now I’ve got a big damn mess on my hands.  I’ve written books in a different way.  For my novel Izzy’s Intervention, for example, I went through multiple outlines, tweaking the plot before writing a word.  I wrote elaborate characters studies, making maps of their personalities and how they all fit together.  For the most part, despite some minor changes, I made the book conform to the outline, believing in the decisions I’d made.  That book was fun to write, but felt far more paint by numbers.  Because I didn’t know what would happen next, Returning was a lot scarier to write and I had to battle against the feeling that I was ruining it all the time.  For this reason, it was also far more exhilarating to work on.  I don’t know which method will end up yielding better returns.  I like to believe that whatever I’m working on at the moment is the best thing I’ve ever done.  That idea sustains me.  But it may be totally false.  Who knows.  I don’t really care if it is.  I’ll believe it even if it fails me because it makes the process more joyful.

So, now what?  My heart wants to immediately go back to the beginning and start the “real work” of editing, of cutting, of honing and re-working.  But I sense this book will need major revision and that’s a scary proposition that kind of feels like jettisoning into deep space without a map of the stars.  My mind says take a break.  And by break, I mean, work on something else.  Some short stories that need work.  Some non-fiction to stimulate my writing brain in a different way.  Blog more.  Just something else.

The only thing I know for sure is that I accomplished my goal.  I made it to the finish line.  The only problem is that, once I got there, it was actually the starting line in disguise.  What I thought was the race was really a warm-up.

And, guess what?  I’m fine with that.

Best to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin