August 12, 2016
Today I began to unravel a sweater I’d knit for my son Jason. It was gorgeous, the sweater, knit in a simple yet complex stitch that showed off the expensive yarn I was using–Noro Silk Garden, a yarn I’ve knit with countless times. When we bought the yarn, I told my son that it cost the equivalent of four months’ rent for my first apartment. Yes, the yarn was magnificent, the sweater was gorgeous, but after I finished it, we discovered it didn’t fit. It was too tight, too short, and the sleeves didn’t even cover his wrists.
“You’ve lost your knitting chops,” my son said. I knew, that with this sweater, I had. I knew, too, that just like writing, though I’d finished an extraordinarily complex sweater knit in a circle a while before, every new project presents new challenges and just because you knit the last one well doesn’t guarantee that the next one will be a success. You always begin at ground zero.
The sweater had taken me months to knit. And I couldn’t figure out what to do. Or rather, I knew what I had to do but I couldn’t bring myself to start doing it.
I couldn’t toss the sweater: the yarn cost too much. I spent a few days trying to salvage the project. Told myself I could knit a gusset, then sew it between the back and front–that would solve the too tight problem. I could lengthen the sleeves easily enough. I could knit a border on the bottom although it would take time and experimentation to find a pattern that complemented the one on body of the sweater. That would take care of the length.
But I realized, soon enough, that my attempts to fix the sweater would destroy its integrity. There was nothing for it but to rip it out–we knitters call it “frogging–and begin all over again.
Well, not entirely. I had the yarn (and enough extra to knit a bigger sweater). I had the pattern. I had the stitch. All these had taken time for us to decide upon. So I wasn’t exactly beginning from scratch. But I’d have to knit the sweater all over again. A few months more work. But I’d get to reuse that magnficent yarn. Get to make a garment that fit as perfectly as it should.
So. What does this have to do with writing?
How often have I gotten to the end of writing a book, or writing a big chunk of a book, and have had to admit that it wasn’t working. I had my material. I thought I knew how the components of the book fit together, what the arc of the narrative would be, what the form looked like. But when it was finished, and I looked at it again, and reread it, and spent some time evaluating my effort, I knew it didn’t work. I knew, deep down, I’d have to “frog” the book.
And just like with that sweater, I’ve spent agonizing days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, trying to effect a quick fix. Moving a chapter here. Writing a new beginning. Or an interchapter. Adding something to the end. All the while knowing I’d have to tear the whole thing apart, begin at the beginning, and write the damned book all over again.
I know there are writers who toss books that don’t work. But I’m tenacious. And I don’t like to let things go. I don’t like to let material go. Plus I believe there’s a lot to be learned from dismal failures, from reworking something that didn’t work the first (or second or third) time round.
That father book I’ve written about, Chasing Ghosts. Rewritten from beginning to end, what? Three times, maybe four? The voice was wrong. The form was wrong. It was too historical. It wasn’t historical enough. There was no significance to my father’s story. I wasn’t in the book enough. I was in the book too much. Ten years that took. And yes, I did write other books during that time when I couldn’t figure out what to do next.
But the material–my father’s experiences during World War II and how they affected me and our family, how every wartime experience affects all families–was too important to me to let it go. And each revision taught me something more, not only about writing (how to use history; how to use documents; how to use a chapter to synopsize an entire relationship; how to shift voice), but also about the subject I was treating. I started the book blaming my father. I ended the book beginning to understand (though I never could of course) what he’d experienced.
I am a fan of making mistakes, big ones, and learning from going back and trying to fix them. I think it makes for deeper work. It did in my case. I once told a student who wanted to toss one narrative that didn’t work after another that she’d never learn anything if she continued to do that, and I insisted that she stick with something that was an utter failure until she could make it work. And she did–brilliantly.
So now I’ll begin my son’s sweater anew. I hope that this next version is the final version. But I know myself well enough to realize that if the it doesn’t work, I won’t give up until it does.