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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  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)

    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!

  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.

    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.

  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.

    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.