Accretion, by Louise DeSalvo
July 9, 2010
I think it was John Updike who said that his novels developed like a coral reef, by accretion. The accretion of bits of material, slowly added to the body of the reef of his work-in-progress, over a long period of time.
I like that metaphor. It fits in with my belief that the best writing occurs this way, in bits and pieces added to a narrative over time. It helps me to remember Updike’s metaphor.
When I put down the words for my first draft, I’m nowhere near where I want to be. Those words are like the ground a painter puts down so that the white of the canvas doesn’t terrify you. Once you get something down on the canvas, it doesn’t seem inviolable. Once you put down some words on the page, it’s not empty anymore. It’s rough, ragged, which is the way I like it. But it’s filled with possibility.
I think many of us had poor instruction in writing. (I do know that many schools, now, are committed to teaching the writing process; still, I know a great many that don’t.) I remember one of my grammar school teachers (a nun) handing out that lined paper that many of you will remember. She stood at the front of the room, gave out the topic for the day, and began by saying, “Now, in your very best handwriting, I want you to write about your summer vacation.” (Weren’t we always writing about our summer vacation? I tore that subject to shreds in Vertigo.)
So off we went. Or did we? Our very best writing. Each sentence carefully constructed with no spelling or grammar errors. Elegant work in a first draft. It’s amazing that any of us trained this way went on to write anything of substance. Some people might be able to (speechwriters, journalists). But I can’t. The first time I learned, by looking at the early manuscripts of Virginia Woolf, that she wrote draft after draft after draft, and that, she noodled with a sentence, a word, a phrase, time after time after time, I thought, I think I might be able to write too.
Accretion. Adding bit by bit to the coral reef of your draft in progress over time. A nice metaphor. (And a difficult one, at this time, given the plight of the coral reefs in our ocean’s and the spoiling of our gulf waters.)
I know some writers who put down a whole draft of a work, and then return to the beginning, and revise that draft, and then return to the beginning and revise that one. This process goes on several times, for some writers I know, as many as eleven. And that’s one way to work. (It’s the way that Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence usually worked.) It’s the way that Eviatar Zerubavel in The Clockwork Muse recommends working. I used that method, for the most part, for two short memoirs, Breathless and Adultery. I used it because the books were short.
Before the advent of computers, when writers wrote drafts by hand, as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence did, I suspect that many writers wrote a complete draft and then went back to revise that draft and then write another and another. Rewriting a draft bit by bit was probably too complicated then. But rewriting a draft by hand that has many interlineations (or even typing one) is now my idea of writing hell. I know. I’ve done it. My first book was written by hand, revised by hand, rewritten by hand, and on and on and on until I finally committed it to type (and those were the days before computers, although I did own an electric typewriter which made things easier than a manual). Typing the work from the final handwritten draft was, in those days, a declaration: This thing is ready, at least I think it’s ready, for publication. (Ha!)
I can’t work that way anymore. I think my brain has changed as I’ve aged, or because I’ve had Lyme Disease, or because I have the kind of brain described in the work on ADD (though I hate pathologizing what I consider to be a perfectly normal brain) and I was working against my brain rather than with it early in my writing life.
Now, I have to take my work a chapter at a time. Sometimes not even that. Sometimes a chunk of meaning at a time. Set down some language, read that language, add a bit here, a bit there, retype it, read that, add a bit more here and a bit more there, and on and on and on. These days, I seem to need about eleven drafts to get my work where I want it to be.
An aside. My work stinks at the beginning. Some of the writers I teach get good stuff down early in the process. I think that’s a blessing but also a trap. Hey, this is good stuff, everyone tells them (though they shouldn’t be showing anyone their stuff this early in the process), and then they don’t go back over the work as many times as they need to turn their good stuff into great stuff.
So let me tell you what’s great about this way of working.
First day, I put down, say, two typescript pages. Second day, I read it. I get an association that doesn’t necessarily move the narrative forward, and I write that into the text. I change a word here, a word there. I add a little something to the end. I retype the thing. By the end of the third day, my two pages have grown to, say, seven. My work isn’t moving in a predictable way. It’s full of surprises that have come – accretions that have come from what’s popped into my mind as I’ve reread.
That scares me. I thought I’d be writing X or Y. But I’m writing Q. And then my job becomes figuring out the connection between what I started with and where I seem to be going. And on and on and on it goes. I try to find segues to connect this with that. I get frustrated. Angry. But keep at it, knowing that I’ve always (almost) gotten to a good end.
I think this is why my work has – at least according to some of my readers – surprises. One of my readers said to me, recently, When I start reading, I think your work is going one way, then it takes off in a whole different direction. Yes, that’s true, which is why my grammar school compositions had red marks all over them, and why my writing drove my teachers so crazy that their pens sometimes ripped the paper as they wrote, “Stick to the topic!”
I don’t like to stick to the topic. When I wrote a piece for Ploughshares, I started writing about my father’s stay in a nursing home – it was difficult stuff. Then one day I started adding a little section about an old boyfriend. What’s that doing here? I wondered, and still didn’t know. I searched for some I’d written about him but didn’t use when I was writing Crazy in the Kitchen about the last time I saw him. Hmm. I said, I wonder what would happen if I tag this on in some way.
So I took what I had about my father, added the boyfriend material to the tiny bit of boyfriend material that somehow got stuck into that work. And then I went back and back and back, adding tiny details to one chunk and then another. Accretion. And then I figured out (very late) why these narratives belonged in the same piece and what that boyfriend had to do with my father dying. The title “Old Flame” just came to me, and that helped a lot because one chunk had to do with me looking at Michelangelo’s painting of The Last Judgment with my father close to his death. Hooray, I said. Old flame (boyfriend); old (father)/flame (hell – which my life with him often was).
Working by accretion means that you’re often working without knowing where you’re going, or what the coral reef of your writing will look like when you’re finished. I can say that I loved the way “Old Flame” turned out. But imagine what it would have been like if I’d said – boyfriend, father – no way – out, out with what doesn’t belong! You were right Sister X, I don’t stick to the topic and I should!
Put down a ground. Read it. Add something that comes to mind. (Instinct is your friend here.) See what happens. I guarantee you’ll be off and running in a new and exciting direction in the coral reef of your writing.