Sunday, October 21, 2012


I finished a book-length manuscript 18 months ago. Then I spent a year re-reading it and fixing little things here and there. Not a full solid year, but it took me a year of finding hidden margins of time to re-read the book. When I got to the end of that second read I thought, “Okay, the end isn’t good enough and I have to fix that bit in the middle, make it better.”

A couple more months went by before I could sit down and do this. I’d been looking forward to it. But within about 10 minutes, I thought, “You know, I could fiddle with this forever. This book is done.” Within 24 hours I had found someone to read it through and clean up any typo’s. I’m waiting for her to finish, have figured out who I’m going to ask to design the book and how I want the cover, and I’ve come to love what I had been thinking of as only a working title. 

When I told the woman who will be proofing the manuscript -- a good friend and a fine poet -- that I’d only read through the manuscript once, she more or less gasped. (I don’t know if people actually “gasp,” but she expressed shock). She’d just been telling me of the manual she’d been reading about how to write fiction and how she’s on the fifth read of her own novel. 

Re-reading and re-writing is unquestioned wisdom when it comes to writing. It’s deemed part of the chore of it all – that and sitting alone for hours and hours and hours.

During the summer I was talking with a writer who has been on one book project for a few years. I told him I was just completing my book, that I expected to be done in the fall, that I had a little re-writing to do. “Right,” he said. “And you’ll probably still be at it 3 years from now!” Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

I disagree. I disagree with just about everything I read (or, actually don’t read) on how to write. I don’t want anyone – and I mean ANYone – telling me how to write. And I’m not telling you anything here. I’m writing down my experience and I am encouraging you to have some faith in your own experience as a writer and follow the uncharted course it prescribes.

I wrote with a woman the other day for the first time. She’s a successful professional woman who has done a lot of legal writing. She came to me because she wanted to write something more personal. We sat down and had a writing session together. “Wow,” she said afterwards, her eyes shining. “I have never ever written like that before.” She’d written something beautiful, something completely her own, a memory from forty years before, every sentence of it providing more detail so I could see the environment that she was seeing in her mind’s eye. And the next day we spoke of it again. “It was wonderful writing with you,” she said. “It demystified writing!” 

Yes! Take out the mystique that implies only some people have the key to the land of golden treasure – all these endless tracts on how to write, how to “create characters” – they do only harm, no good at all. 

Not that writing is not mysterious. It is. And not that continuing to write doesn’t make you a better writer, that there is always more territory to discover. There is. And not that there isn’t joy and creativity in some re-writing. 

But I have the feeling that if it weren’t for computers writing wouldn’t have become the land of endless rewrites. Think of all those writers who did it by hand or on a typewriter… 

Back to my manuscript. For the last two weeks I have been worried and thinking about it. Maybe I was too rash. I’m usually too rash. Maybe I should do what everyone else does, re-read that sucker, tweak every sentence, make it better.

But my other half won out. No reader is going to notice the changes I will make. If they don’t like the book the way it is now they are not going to eat it up because I’ve made some of the sentences more pleasing. And I believe in what comes out onto the page the first time – I don’t want to lose that. Maybe it’s no good. But no matter how long you work on these things that’s a chance you have to take. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012


My parents liked to read. There were tall, filled bookshelves in the living room. I got deeply involved with the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, then horse books. In boarding school bliss was weekend afternoons when every girl lay silently on her single bed, reading and eating candy freshly purchased from the tiny candy shop improvised by Sister Anthony on a card table.

By the time I was in my teens I had found home in books -- grown-up ones now, ones often purloined from the shelves in the living room. I read novels. I read fiction. That's where the art was then. And I promised myself that if I did anything with my life, I was going to find a way to become one of those magic people who could write fiction and create worlds that were more real to me than the ones presented anywhere else.

Forty years later, I don't read fiction anymore. At least, not contemporary fiction. The last novel I read was The God of Small Things back in the mid-nineties. And that was a helluva book to end on. I read it twice.

But I can't bear current fiction now. We have memoir now. We have broken through that barrier and someone can tell their story now directly and fully without the clothing of fiction.

When George Eliot was writing, or Jean Rhys, or Virginia -- the language of memoir that we have now did not exist. People had to put their memoir into fiction. And when you read good fiction from back then -- something I still do -- you can hear the writer's thinking bleeding through the story. I still read old fiction with enthusiasm. And I've been wondering why I like fiction in old books, but have no interest when it comes to the new fiction.

I pick up a new novel now, open it, and as soon as I read the first sentence -- about someone who does not exist -- I lose interest. There is nothing at stake.

I want the writer to be willing to show themselves as blatantly as possible on the page. I look hard for good contemporary memoir. When I am lucky and I come across it then I hardly put the book down until I am finished. I can't. The pleasure is too great.

But good memoir is hard to come by, and to fill the gap I have been returning to fiction from the 1940s and further back into the 19th century. I would still rather read a good current memoir. But these old books keep me going. I am grateful for them, rich and deep, the soil I came from.