Outtakes and Takeaways
my filing cabinets are full of unsung dramas
I’m playing hooky here from a talk I’m writing to give at an event later today. I will return to Ferrante’s In the Margins next week but right now I just want to say a few words about the hundreds and hundreds of pages I’ve written that haven’t appeared anywhere, and won’t. What value have they? Any at all? Is that even a good question?
I think it is, because unless you come up with a good answer for it, it can seem as though writing pages that don’t add up is a waste of time. And that can lead to quitting. Which is just plain sad.
The answer for me is that once I accepted that a lot of pages would go nowhere I really began to love to write. That wasn’t always the case. I used to be a perfectionist of the ilk who would cross out sentence after sentence in heavy black lines to the point of obliteration, as if there were a ruthless intelligence peering over my shoulder checking my work, and I didn’t want them to see how stupid I’d been. My pages were completely inked out. They looked more like artwork than writing. (I felt a stab of recognition when I first encountered Cy Twombly, though it’s not the same, it just looks it.) I hated myself and the work. I dreaded writing but I was compelled to do it, I wanted to do it. It was very unhappy for a long time.
The spell broke when I took a class with Mary Robison at the Bennington Writing Workshops and she grasped my problem and told me to bring her ten pages of single-spaced writing three times a week. Since I am a two-finger typist, and at the time had only a manual typewriter, there was no way I could do that without letting go of trying to be as good as whoever I thought the best writer was at the time. That was what it was, after all. I was aware of what great writing was and I wanted mine to be as good, which for a long time meant I wanted mine to be the same. Not that I was imitating—I was too enthralled by the idea of being original for that—but I had a sense of registers I wanted to hit, if that makes sense.
Writing those fast carefree pages for Mary didn’t immediately break me of perfectionism but it did get me thinking, or not thinking, as I later discovered was the ticket. For I have learned that I do best when I think before and after writing but not during. When I am actually writing I have to feel my way along like a baby inching through the birth canal. I’m in the dark, I’m feeling squeezed, but I’m headed somewhere, and I just have to trust that I will get there.
I started thinking about this because I am writing in my talk for later today about all the pages I wrote for Fellowship Point that hit the cutting room floor, and how much fun I had writing them. For the first time I was working solely from my imagination and making up stories about all the characters that came to me. It was as though I were reading their biographies as I wrote them, watching them do as they did, and above all getting to be in places I loved except not exactly—invented places that resembled places I love. There are parts of the book I miss and wish I could have included, but enough is enough for everything in life. If someone picks it up for a mini-series I’ll restore the story of Robert in prison, Nan living with her aunt in Florida and being part of an extreme evangelical church congregation, Heidi and Moses meeting and her first serious depression, Moses’ mother cautioning him against marrying Heidi, and on. And on.
Why are all those dead ends of value to me? For one thing, I practiced writing by writing them. I tried out different techniques. In the beginning of the second volume of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, Lenu describes reading Lila’s notebooks and seeing all the practice she had done for years so no wonder her letter to Lenu on Ischia was so good. It didn’t come from off the top of her head, as Lenu believed and was crushed by, but on hundreds of lines of practiced description. I practice, too. For another thing, writing has always been a form of escape for me, and a form of meditation and I love and need both. I need to go somewhere for a few minutes or a few hours a day where money, health, status, the problems and sorrows of the world, my worries, my other work, and so on, are not at the forefront. What is prominent is the chance that I will make contact with what I have called since I was a teenager “the parallel universe” where things are as they should be, everyone behaves for the common good, all of life is connected and everyone acts accordingly. I put on a set of headphones just as a signal that it’s time to go there and I do. I leave my everyday world and go to the world of writing. It has evolved into a place of relaxation and trust, as I know it’s only a matter of time and work before I do come up with something publishable. But all the pages along the way are just as important to me, as they are how I live. I am a writer, plain and simple. So I just write, and let the pages fall as they may.
Have a good spring week.