Friday, February 17, 2023

It Ain't Over Til It's Over--The Unfolding of a Story (and How to Hang In There)

One of my favorite weekly reads about writing is George Saunders' Story Club. Recently he wrote a post about the time it takes to grow into appreciation of a story, as a reader. He mentioned a Chekov story he'd read in college but didn't really "get" until many years later. Both his own writing and his skill as a reader needed time to mature. A big lesson from this, or at least my interpretation of what he learned was profound: to not discard that which we can't yet understand.

I read this before one of my afternoon walks and thought about it for the entire hour. I loved the idea because it was ever-expanding: our appreciation of writing is a skill to be developed just like knowing how to pace or draft good scenes or revise.

But the real take-away for me was this: if you expand this from just about being a more thoughtful and patient reader, learning to appreciate other writers, and apply it to our own work, it implies that we may not see the value in a draft we've created. The key, according to what I took from Saunders' post, is to not discard it out of hand but to hang in there until the piece reaches its next stage.

In other words, to have patience in the maturing process of our own manuscripts.

Some writers have no problem with this. They think their work is stellar from draft one. I don't. I usually have to work at patience with my early efforts, to accept that I've gotten words on the page as best I can at that moment, to step back and let the writing grow into its own.

How this looks for me: I write my rough draft, trying not to judge its merit. My job is to type, as one author said. Get the words out of my head onto the page.

Then put it aside and let it become something I ruminate on. Hold it lightly in my attention, with goodwill and trust that if it's got anything to offer, the shape will begin to come forward.

Then come back to it with the same goodwill and begin to explore ways to reshape or expand.

Or, equally good, go on to another section and write that, leaving the first one to simmer until ready. This is one reason I applaud the complete rough draft before editing. It allows the shape to evolve. If a writer refines too early, it can become tight and constipated and never find its shape.

My holiday gift box of new books included a couple that struck me as just weird when I began reading. The style or voice or the slow pace wasn't what I expected. I know the authors are writers I admire; I've read other books by them. So I chose to give the new books the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it would just take time, a kind of learning curve as a reader, to allow a different appreciation of the story. And that turned out to be true.

One example was Elizabeth Strout's new novel, Lucy by the Sea, a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I enjoyed a lot. Strout uses a certain style of writing to give us the inner world of this character, transported to Maine from New York City in the early days of the pandemic, by her ex-husband, to "save her life." They isolate in a rental house by the ocean. Not much happens, just a lot chapters where we immerse in Lucy's inner world and her peculiar way of viewing life. She's not automatically a sympathetic character; her voice is plain, and Strout uses mostly declarative sentences to show this. Occasionally, an image or a line that strikes me as poetic will appear--and it's breathtaking. But overall, the book drones on a bit.

But as I have with other books by this author, I hang in there. I learn stuff. I'm surprised. The read is not what I would call enjoyable because it makes me work. Reading about a dysfunctional character during the height of the pandemic is far from entertainment. Yet what I learn--about writing, about this woman, about a different view of the world--is worth my time and attention.

Why shouldn't we give our own writing the same patience and trust that we have learned to give other authors that make us work for it? If we've written something we don't recognize, not our usual style or voice or pace, maybe it just takes time to learn to appreciate what our creative self is attempting. Not to discard it out of hand until it reveals its gift and what it can teach us.

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