Monday, April 23, 2012

The Cyclical Process of Writing

In any task you undertake, you often hear the advice: start at the beginning, continue down the middle, and finish at the end. Writing is no different. Problem is, as you advance diligently down that path, you may find--to your surprise--that you are getting better, more proficient at your craft. Suddenly the opening of this chapter sounds so much catchier than the previous one; and the ending more powerful.

Which requires constant re-evaluation and reworking of previous chapters. So in my opinion, the process of writing is Cyclical. By the time I completed the last chapter of Apart From Love, I knew I had to discard--or at least, rewrite and restructure--the first chapter.

This, then, is the first page of the first chapter, in which Ben is about to return--reluctantly--to his childhood home, and to a contentious relationship with his father:

About a year ago I sifted through the contents of my suitcase, and was just about to discard a letter, which my father had written to me some time ago. Almost by accident my eye caught the line, I have no one to blame for all this but myself, which I had never noticed before, because it was written in an odd way, as if it were a secret code, almost: upside down, in the bottom margin of the page, with barely a space to allow any breathing. 
The words left some impression in my memory. I almost wished he were next to me, so I could not only listen to him, but also record his voice saying that. 
I imagined him back home, leaning over his desk, scrawling each letter with the finest of his pens with great care, as if focusing through a thick magnifying glass. The writing was truly minute, as if he had hated giving away even the slightest hint to a riddle I should have been able to solve on my own. I detested him for that. And so, thinking him unable to open his heart to me, I could never bring myself to write back. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake. 
Even so, I am only too happy to agree with him: the blame for what happened in our family is his. Entirely his. If not for his actions ten years ago, I would never have run away to Firenze, to Rome, to Tel Aviv. And if not for his actions a couple of weeks ago, this frantic call for me to come back and see him would never have been made. 
And so I find myself standing here, on the threshold of where I grew up, feeling utterly awkward. I knock, and a stranger opens the door. The first thing that comes to mind: what is she doing here? The second thing: she is young, much too young for him. The third: her hair. Red.


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8 comments:

  1. Oh, so true... And it didn't stop there. I reread and reevaluated at least thirty times to get the first chapter, actually the prologue, exactly where I wanted it. When I got a rejection letter, I went back again. I couldn’t believe that it was the agent or publisher, so it had to be me. I could totally relate with Kathryn Stockett "The Help". No one, even my husband knew I was writing. I’d hole myself up and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. It wasn’t until a publisher requested to publish my books that I finally told my family and finally allowed myself to take a breath, but then, I went back and polished it up again.

    If you haven’t read this interview with Hemmingway, I think you’ll like it:
    Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
    Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
    Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
    Hemingway: Getting the words right.
    (Ernest Hemingway, "The Art of Fiction," The Paris Review Interview, 1956)

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    1. I can totally understand this labor of love you went through, Carmen! In my case there was no difference between writing and rewriting--I just did it around the clock.

      Thank you so much for the interview segment you added. In truly enriches the conversation. So poignant!

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  2. Yes, it is cyclical. I also find that it works to write some chapters out of order. For instnce, I almost always write the last scene way early on. It helps as a beacon.

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    1. Very true, Cathryn. I understand exactly what you mean be 'a beakon'. In my case, I wrote a chapter called 'Editorial Notes' which is an Epilogue really, written by one of the characters as he looks at the scene in the aftermath of what happened. He saw a broken mirror, and knew that the white piano is missing. Then I went back to the story to build up towards that last scene.

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  3. I've just finished reading it! That first chapter really pulled me in. And the mirror and piano were great images throughout the story. I agree about the cyclical nature of writing. Some things become so important as the story goes on--things the characters didn't tell you about until they realized their importance. So then you rewrite.

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    1. Wow! I'm so glad. I really gave a lot of thought to the first chapter, and to the first paragraphs in particular, because as you said, they are crucial in pulling you in.

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