Tied Up in Knots
January 28, 2011
Have you every gotten yourself tied up in knots as a writer? It happens to the best of us. It’s happened to me more times than I care to admit. I’ve come to believe that this “tied up in knots” thing that happens to us happens because we’re ambitious (I mean that positively), we reach for the starts, we want to stretch our limits, we want to try a design we’ve never tried before. But to finish a work that’s all tied up in knots, we might have to stop, assess, take a look at what we have, at what’s working, at what’s not working, and opt for a simpler design than we’d intended (at least to get the work back in working order) before we start to re-introduce some of those amazingly “out there” elements that got us all tied up in knots in the first place.
Here are some “tied up in knots” stories drawn from my writing life, and from that of some writers I know.
Virginia Woolf’s most famous “tied up in knots” story concerns her writing of “The Pargiters,” the earlier draft of the novel that became The Years. You can take a look at the earlier version if you want to; it’s been published, edited by Mitchell A. Leaska. And you can compare it, as I have, as many Woolf scholars have, to The Years. What tied Woolf up in knots was that she was reaching for a complicated narrative structure. She wanted to alternate prose chapters about issues concerning women growing up in Victorian, then Edwardian England with fictional chapters “showing” what the prose chapters were “telling.” An ambitious, way-out-there design. In each of the novels Woolf wrote, she upped the ante for herself. She wasn’t one of those writers who finds a formula and repeats and repeats and repeats it. Take a look at Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, say. Each, a brilliant design; each, ambitious; each, successfully pulled off. Mrs Dalloway: the events take place in a day but reach back, back, back into personal history; two sets of characters lives run side by side (one, the Great War veteran, Septimus Smith; the other, the wife of a Member of Parliament, Mrs Dalloway). To the Lighthouse: three parts; the first, taking place on a day a trip to the lighthouse is planned; scores of minor characters and a very large family; the second, the poetic, elegiac “Time Passes” interlude – something never before done in fiction; the third, years later, two family members dead, the trip actually occurs. The Waves: a series of choral voices that range over many, many subjects; a tour de force of writing; amazing, radical.
And then the “tied up in knots” “Pargiters.” When I first discussed how Woolf had gotten herself into this jam, my husband (a person I refer to as a “civilian,” in that he’s not a writer), simply said, “You can’t win them all.” I was affronted at what I considered to be this simple minded answer to what I saw as the tragic situation Woolf had gotten herself into. But of course, he was right. Even Woolf couldn’t win them all. Even Woolf couldn’t pull off that ambitious design she’d planned for herself. She said, of The Years, that it was a failure, but that it’s failure was deliberate.
So, what did she do to unknot the knots of that narrative? She did what I’ve done in similar situations. She opted for the “more traditional” solution. She deleted the prose chapters from the narrative. She wrote the novel purely as fiction. But at the end of the process, she had two books to show for this supposed muddle: The Years and the mind-boggling critique of culture, Three Guineas. Not bad for what Woolf had once considered a mess.
Could Woolf have pulled off that ambitious design if she stuck with it? Maybe. She’s my writing here, and I tend to believe she could have done it if she wanted to. But she herself realized that it wasn’t worth the effort. She herself realized that she had to pull back, be less radical in her design. She decided to “just tell the story.” I think that getting two books, instead of one, out of the deal was a damned good solution to a perplexing problem. But because she’s “one of us” as a writer, rather than praising herself for getting herself out of a writing jam, she blamed herself for not pulling off the (perhaps) overly ambitious design she’d set for herself.
Now please don’t think that our getting ourselves tied up in knots as writers is a bad thing. There’s no such thing as a bad thing in the writing process. For Woolf, “The Pargiters” was a part of the process of writing The Years and Three Guineas.
For me, writing a tangled version of what became my book On Moving was a necessary prelude (rather like “The Pargiters”) to On Moving and my father book about World War II that I’m working on now.
My tangled, tied-up-in-knots book tried to combine a book about moving with my father going to the war. At the heart of the complex (and, I realized after a year or so) undoable design was my hard-core belief that every move we make replicates in some way our people’s history of moving, going way, way back in time. So I wrote and wrote and wrote and after a very long time, I realized I was in way over my head.
(An aside about judging. So many writing books tell us not to judge our work, to just keep working. I kind of agree with that. But fundamentally, I think that’s a simplistic overstatement of what helps us as writers. We as writers are always assessing whether what we’re doing is working or not; if we weren’t then why would we change anything? With me, there’s always the writing writer, and the assessing writer considering what the writing writer is doing. That’s the way it is. This only derails us when the assessing writer tells the writing writer that the work is bad, horrible, disgusting. But when the assessing writer tells the writing writer that the work isn’t working, that’s something else again, and that helps us move the work forward. Woolf’s assessing writer knew that her work wasn’t working, and she told that to her writing writer. The problem [for her psychically] came when the assessing writer used the word “failure”. Nothing along the way to a completion is a failure.)
Okay. So my assessing writer told my writing writer that this wasn’t working. At that point I gave the book to a writer I trust implicitly and I said, “Help me figure this out.” She said, “You have two books here,” which I kind of knew. And then she told me, specifically, what to do with the moving book, and what to take out and save for the other book, the one I’m working on now. This writer’s name is Christina Baker Kline, and I owe her big time. Check out her work. She’s a marvelous novelist, editor, teacher, inspiration to me and lots of other writers.
So, what to do if we’re tied up in knots as a writer? I wouldn’t say stop immediately. Because, who knows, you might be able to pull off a complex design. But I would say that at the point where you dread going to the desk, at the point where you feel you’re drowning in your own design, at the point where you feel you’re confused beyond the ordinary confusion that comes with being a writer, stop. Assess. Ask for help. You might very well have two or three books all tied up in knots in the work you’re doing. And that’s a good thing. That’s a very, very good thing.