July 29, 2011
We, as writers, have to make tough choices, and it’s been my experience that we don’t often recognize this. Because our work, for the most part, is self-initiated and self-directed, we might tend to confuse our writing, say, with other pleasurable pastimes we enjoy and we might elide how many choices we make in a day of our writing life. But make no mistake about it, our writing life necessitates a tough-mindedness about our choices that it takes time to cultivate. In fact, I believe our writing life is especially difficult because of the enormous number of choices we have to make.
Here’s a simple instance of a tough choice. Do we pick up the phone when we see that a friend who is in the middle of a tough situation is calling, or do we, instead, go to our desk because we have only an hour in our day to write? We pride ourselves on our capacity for intimacy. Still, if we get on the phone, a half hour of our precious hour will be lost to us. Forever. We can’t get it back. And if we commiserate with our friend, we know that our head will be in another place, and not ready for the focus our project requires. Our friend can wait until late in the day; our writing can’t. It takes a steely will to turn the phone off, to write a note to call our friend later, and to move to our desks.
Writers know they have a universe of subjects to write about. Talk to any writer about what s/he’d like to write next, and I’ll bet s/he’ll come up with, say, five potential works s/he’s been dying to write. So which one will it be? Some of us are lucky enough to have very fertile imaginations, and for those of us who do, the choices will be even tougher than those of us who must, must, must write about this or that. Still, exploring one of our ideas in our writing life means that, for now, we can’t examine all the other ideas crowding our consciousness. Sometimes it seems so difficult to choose, that we become paralyzed, and don’t. But what I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter which subject we choose: whatever we begin working on will engage us, and sooner, rather than later, we’ll be fully immersed in our subject, fully engaged, and we will have forgotten the agony of the moment of choosing. Choose sooner, rather than later, I’ve learned. If we make a nice little list of all the great ideas we have, they’ll be there, waiting for us. I recently discovered the outline of my memoir Vertigo in the journal I was writing while writing my biography of Virginia Woolf. I didn’t get to that memoir until four books later, but the seed had been planted, and I believe that it was germinating while I worked on other things. If we take care of ourselves, we’ll have long lives as writers, and we’ll have time to explore many – but not all – of them.
Every moment when we have our work under our pen, or under our keyboards, we’re making hundreds, thousands of tough choices in every writing day. Keep this; change that; move this paragraph here; toughen up the language there; split this paragraph in two. Many of us do this so automatically, we don’t realize that every choice we make matters. We shouldn’t remember this often or it would paralyze us. By the time we declare our work finished, or declare ourselves finished with the work, we’ve chosen every single element of our work, and we’ve decided to keep or change every single word, mark of punctuation, and indentation. Two axioms are helpful for us to understand. I learned both from my teacher, Mitchell A. Leaska. The first is that every word in a completed text is there by choice, not by chance. The second is that the meaning of a text reverberates against its unchosen alternatives.
Sometimes all these choices seem terrifying – at least they do to me. Should the book have four chapters or five? Three parts or two? Should it begin with this scene, or end with this scene? Should I ditch the material that comes at the end of the second section? On and on and on. I’ve found that if I tell myself that my choices will become easier as my work progresses, I’m less inhibited. If I take a work through, say, six drafts, I let myself make the so-called wrong choices at the beginning because I know I’ll have five more chances to make changes, so I can write in an uninhibited way. And I’ve found, too, that taking a work from penultimate draft to final draft becomes difficult in terms of our choices again because we know the work will soon be complete. At this stage of the process, I’ve found that if we treat our work as if a writer friend has written it – if we shift to editor brain rather than writer brain – the choices are much easier for us to make.
The meaning of a text does reverberate against its unchosen alternatives. And it helps us to think of it in this way. What will be the payoff if I put that chapter at the front of my work? What will be the ripoff if I do? For whatever we choose isn’t the only choice we could have made. I like to articulate these choices to myself in this way so that I can think through the outcome of the choice I have to make. It helps me enormously.
One reason why we as writers don’t realize how many tough choices we have to make is because of the way literature is usually taught. When we enter a literature class, the professor (let’s think college for now) asks us to think deeply about the meaning of a sentence, the meaning of a particular word. We and our peers enter into excited discussions about the work. The professor never indicates that this sentence, this particular word, might have been quite different, that the writer had gone through various revisions of that sentence, and had chosen this one, not the earlier versions, to be in the published text. Still, it’s quite possible that the writer’s earlier choices were just as good, just as viable as the later ones. I found this to be true when I edited a complete earlier version of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. Her working title for the earlier draft, she called Melymbrosia. The books are different; neither is better than the other. The reasons for Woolf’s abandoning the early draft are complicated. But it’s sufficient to say that she could have published that draft, and didn’t. She made the kind of tough choice we all have to make: to keep the draft, or to move it along.
And then there’s the final tough choice: when to stop. We can write whatever we’re writing until the end of our time on this earth. I don’t think we want to do that. How to make that tough choice? For me, it helps to establish an endpoint date and to work towards it.
So if you’re tired at the end of a writing session and don’t know why, it’s because you’re doing brain-breaking work making all these choices.