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.



6 Responses to “Tied Up in Knots”

  1. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    I have been ‘tied up in knots’ countless times before and it can be a confusing time. The way I usually handle the situation is to, as you suggest, stop immediately. I would slow down and leave it alone for a while, then come back to the project with fresh eyes. If that doesn’t work then I would just try to start writing from a different perspective. I’ve never given the piece to someone else to review. That can be something for me to try the next time this happens. Having a person unrelated to the project review it can bring another point of view that can point out an aspect I would not notice otherwise. This is definitely good advice.

  2. Marianne Says:

    Great advise, I have someone that reviews my writing, it always provides me with perspective. I have difficulty with “time” I jump from the present to the past and don’t transition properly. I have started to make timelines this have helped somewhat. I free write than have a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work together. It gets frustrating, trying to get everything down on paper, in some type of cohesiveness.

  3. ashley Leavitt Says:

    Louis DeSalvo observes in her post “Tied up in Knots” that “there’s always the writing writer, and the assessing writer considering what the writing writer is doing.” I could not agree more. I actually find the awareness of my writerly self as kind of exciting –almost voyeuristic. If I get really frustrated or self critical (which I tend to do often), I chose a random sentence in a paragraph I am frustrated with and write out from it. This sometimes helps. If it does not, I set the work down and do something else for a few minutes, or I read an excerpt from an author whose style I admire.
    Like Woolf’s experience with “The Pargiters,” I too have felt that what I intended to be a complex yet unified piece of writing might actually work better if it were bifurcated. When I first came to this realization, I felt frustrated and kept trying to stitch the two ideas together, weather through structure or by subtly changing the content of the writing. At last, I resigned to separate my two ideas, and embrace each as piece deserving of individual attention. Perhaps one day I will be able to amalgamate them via a thread that is presently invisible. And I would definitely agree that a pair of fresh eyes to review my writing is always helpful!

  4. Vic Venom Says:

    Ahh “Tied up in knots”. I’ve been both figuratively and literally (another story altogether). Madam DeSalvo has some good advice here. Although as you recommend “stopping immediately”, that feels like writers block gets the best of you, for which my usual tactic has been “attack without mercy” but then I wind up tied up even more, chained to my bad story structure. Stopping, taking a breath and planning out a strategy always work.

    The Kaiser’s Navy had a saying that fits here perfectly – Never let your ship go faster than your brain.

  5. Chloe DeFilippis Says:

    This semester I got myself “tied up in knots” while working on my final memoir for Professor Giunta’s course. Instead of focusing on the story, on what I wanted to tell, I began obsessing over how I wanted the memoir to be structured. I stopped writing and I started planning. I found all these little strings to pull through my memoir. Ultimately, all those little strings turned into one impossible, unmanageable knot. When I finally assessed my memoir, I found the one element that worked and put all the other elements aside. I chose a simpler design where the writing could breathe and live and flourish.
    Getting “tied up” is frustrating. But taking a step back, looking at the “mess,” and choosing just one piece to “clean” makes the writing process less daunting and more relaxing and fulfilling. Plus, the other “mess” will still be there, a scrap yard of writing, just waiting to be picked up or thrown away or simply saved.

  6. Peter Orozco Says:

    I just got out of my knot. I had a concept for my final memoir this semester that I thought would have been an unorthodox read. I dove into the writing head first knowing, or least I thought I knew, exactly what I wanted to accomplish. I gathered all my notes on the idea, had my theme in mind, sat down at my Macbook Pro, and started typing. And typing. And typing. Then I took a break for a few days. And then typed some more. I think you get the point. I wish I would have read this post earlier. It would have saved me from carpal tunnel. But now I get to look back to see if I have other material for my next semester of Memoir Workshop.

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