Five Minutes’ Work
April 6, 2011
I met, recently, with a beginning writer, and he asked me if I could tell him what I knew about the habits of seasoned writers. “Can you tell me what seasoned writers do when they write?” is how he phrased it. I told him that I’d learned a great deal, and that, sure, I could tell him. So I started talking about what I knew about how Virginia Woolf worked. But he stopped me.
He told me he wasn’t talking about finding a subject, or about making a schedule, or about writing in a journal, or about how many hours a day someone like Woolf wrote, or about anything like that. He was asking me what a seasoned writer does at the desk moment by moment by moment that might be different from what he was doing. He wanted to learn from the “pros,” he said, and he wondered if anyone had studied that and written about it.
He said that, in many fields – dancing, ice skating, football, basketball, soccer – if you were new to the discipline, you could watch the pros, study what they do, and learn from them. Didn’t beginning dancers watch videos of seasoned dancers to try to improve their own technique? Of course they do. And I recalled a dancer friend of mine telling me how he studied championship performances on tape to understand what he needed to do to improve, and he also studied the tape of his own performances.
But creating something out of nothing in private is different. Beginning writers, painters, composers, choreographers, for example, can’t stand behind a writer writing, a painter painting, a composer composing, a choreographer choreographing and watch what they do. Even if they could, they could never penetrate the consciousness of the creator in the moment of creation.
And so the most important information of all – what a creator does in the moment of creation – is virtually impossible, if not completely impossible, to transmit. There is a famous video of Jackson Pollack painting that reveals his technique, yes. And it’s said that Pollack was upset that he’d permitted the filming of himself at work because he believed it gave away his secrets, that the video had stolen his soul. But even that video didn’t climb into Pollack’s consciousness, and couldn’t reveal how or why he did what he was doing. There are published conversations with writers about how they created a book or a story. (12 Short Stories and Their Making, edited by Paul Mandelbaum is one of them.) But the writers in these books are telling us about their process after the fact; they’re telling us what they remember about the making of a work, and what they tell us, though invaluable, is not telling us anything about the moment by moment by moment work of writing.
If we took, say, five minutes of a writer’s work day, and told the writer to be conscious of what he or she was doing, could anything of importance be gleaned to tell a beginning writer? A writer, any writer, beginning or seasoned, makes so many decisions in a mere five minutes of writing time that I’m certain it would be impossible to record just that tiny moment of a writing life. And, we all know that watching ourselves work so that we can say something intelligible about what we’re doing as we’re working might stop us dead in our tracks. (Just like the competition ice skater, say, who when she’s skating, starts thinking about what she’s doing: the champion skater Sasha Cohen describes, in her autobiography, how this is the undoing of a skater.)
I told my writer friend all this. And he understood. But he didn’t let me off the hook. He wanted me to go home, and take five minutes of a writing day, any writing day, and pay attention, in that small amount of time, to what I was doing.
Sure, I said, thinking that there’d be nothing to share. But only, I told him, if you do the same so that we could compare notes. I warned him that knowing what I did in five minutes wouldn’t tell him anything about what any other writer did, and so his knowing what I did would amount to knowing nothing at all. Still, he persisted. And so he had his homework and I had mine.
The day I decided to watch myself, I was beginning the sixth or seventh revision of a chapter of my new book. The work I was to do on the beginning paragraph, now about 160 words long, the one I was working on, was to be a simple (or so I thought) revision of something I’d written a few years ago. It’d taken me awhile to get the early part of this book revised and rewritten. So I hadn’t dealt with this material in a long time. I realized that talking about revision would be different than talking about creating new material. But I wasn’t willing to write anew just for this experiment.
My five minutes of work went something like this. I took out my “Next To Do” list and wrote down the first thing I wanted to do – “Find the beginning.” I found the beginning of the earlier draft I was using as the basis for this new draft (the sixth complete draft of this material) and didn’t like it. Then I decided what to do next – “Find a more suitable beginning.” And I did. Then, next, “Revise the beginning.”
I was dealing with a simple “setting up” paragraph: telling the reader that my parents, newly in love, newly committed to marrying, were deciding when they would marry, sooner, as my father wanted, or later, as my mother wanted. Nothing fancy, no pyrotechnics, though one interesting, I thought, use of a paragraph.
As I started revising, I noticed that as I typed the material into a new document, I continually went back and reread everything I wrote, making changes as I went along. After I made a change, I reread everything I’d done and found myself making another, very small change. And so on and so on.
By the time five minutes was over, I was still working on the first paragraph, but I’d noted that I’d reread the material as it evolved, more than 15 times, but I stopped counting because it was slowing me down. (By the time I finished my work on three pages of material later that day, I went back and reread the first paragraph and realized I it needed even more work.)
When the beginning writer and I shared notes a few days later, this is what we learned.
I decided what I would do before I started doing it. He didn’t: he plunged in and started writing.
I reread and reread and reread as I worked on the first paragraph. He didn’t: he kept moving his work along without revisiting it.
At one point, I read what I was working on aloud which forced a few more changes. He didn’t; he said he didn’t even verbalize his work in his head.
As I worked, I sometimes sensed that something was wrong and then stopped and figured out how to make it right or at least better than it was. He sometimes sensed something wasn’t working but kept going figuring he’d get to it later.
As I worked, I realized I kept checking the material against the portraits I wanted to paint of my parents; I kept checking to see if the wording I was using was representing them or misrepresenting them, but this was barely recognized as I worked. It was as if I was checking my work with a felt sense of what I wanted. He was writing about family, but hadn’t thought about what their portraits should be like, didn’t sense that what he was writing was working or not.
As I reread, I reworked the paragraph, making continual, sometimes tiny changes – taking out a “that”, putting the “that” back in, taking it out again; trying the material within parentheses without the parentheses, and decided to use the parentheses after all; thinking about whether repeating a word in two succeeding sentences worked or if I should change one of them (I changed one of them). Changing the wording of something but not the sense because I wanted a sentence describing what my mother was wondering to mimic the sentence structure of what my father was wondering. I realized that although I was calling this the “sixth draft” of my paragraph, this was inaccurate, because, in this pass, I’d gone over the wording and the sense of this paragraph at least fifteen times.
I want to emphasize that my way of working is my way of working and that someone else who’s a seasoned writer might work in a far different way. Still, after our conversation, the writer I talked with said he’d learned a few things he found useful.
He said he’d try rereading as he worked. He said he’d start fixing things as he went along, or, as he put it, he’d start playing with the work as he went along as I did, rather than acting as if what he put down was sacrosanct.
This writer – any writer – has to find his own way. But he did say that he was flabbergasted by how slowly and meticulously I seemed to work. He had no idea that a seasoned writer keeps going back over the work. He didn’t realize how many drafts someone like me wrote, how many changes someone like me made. He believed that somehow it got easier with time.
No, I told him, it doesn’t.