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Learning How to Work at Writing
I remember a meltdown I had in college when I was writing an essay. You were given an assignment. You had to hand in a perfect paper on a due date. There were no opportunities for revision, no comments on a draft to help you improve.
So there I was, sitting at my desk. I'd reel a sheet of erasable paper into my typewriter and begin. And I'd expect myself to do everything at once—present a coherent argument; write an organized essay in syntactically correct, perfectly punctuated prose.
I was writing about Dostoyevsky, my favorite author. I knew what I wanted to say. But I had no notes, no draft. I had an outline, but it felt like a straitjacket. I kept having new insights as I wrote, but instead of tossing my outline, I tossed away my pages. When I wrote an incoherent sentence, I'd tear the paper out of the typewriter and begin anew.
Halfway through the night, I was so muddled, so incapable of working, that I began crying and couldn't stop. A friend calmed me down and sat beside me while I did the best I could. But the paper was a disaster. "You write primer English," the professor commented. Afraid of making a mistake, short on time, I'd simplified my writing and my argument.
I wanted to be a writer. But if this was what writing was like, I couldn't do it—I didn't have the necessary skills. I didn't know it was all right to start anywhere. That most writers compose more than one draft. That it was impossible to do everything at once. But that's how I thought writers wrote, and no one—not my professors, not the books I read about literature (we were steered away from biography)—told us anything different about how writers worked. The closest I came to seeing a writer's process was when I typed a few drafts of a collection by a poet who taught at my college.
Now, when I teach the craft of memoir, I invite Kathryn Harrison to my class to describe how she wrote The Mother Knot (2004), her memoir describing her tangled relationship with her mother. My students are eager to pen their first full-length work; still, many want to rush the process and don't yet know how to work at writing. Hearing Harrison discuss the many stages of her work provides them with important information about how to write their own memoirs.
Harrison arrived in class with a stack of manuscripts—ten drafts of The Mother Knot that she composed from autumn 2002 through summer 2003. She began the work as a long essay; she realized she was writing a book in the seventh draft. Seeing that pile of drafts was an important learning experience for my students. As one said, "I realized that if it took Harrison that many drafts, it'd take me that long, too."
Because Harrison knows she'll work through many drafts, she gives herself permission to write badly at first. Although the book's skeleton—having her mother's body exhumed and cremated—existed in the first draft, Harrison deleted or shortened self-indulgent material that wasn't germane to the book. Other subjects—her anorexia, for example—that she raced through, she had to later develop. In time, Harrison deepened the meaning of what breast-feeding and her mother's sadism meant to her. And what she'd reported—her mother's behavior, conversations with her own therapist—she later revised into scenelets and full-fledged scenes.
Harrison took time between drafts—a few days, a month—and that helped her understand how to fix problems. She often dealt with challenges one draft at a time—how she presented character A, how she presented character B. In another draft, she focused on how she treated images of water that had been present early, refining and expanding them. In later drafts, she worked by association to fill in the blanks of her narrative.
The structure of Harrison's work had been established from the beginning: a linear narrative combined with flashbacks in scenelets, scenes, or exposition. But until almost the last draft, Harrison didn't know how the memoir would end. From the first draft, it began with a scene of her finding frozen breast milk. She thought she'd end with casting her mother's ashes into the water. But she intuitively wrote a scene describing her Quaker wedding, which, she realized, was a more apt resolution to the theme of how she came to terms with her mother's adverse effect upon her.
Witnessing how Harrison wrote and revised The Mother Knot helped my students understand that it takes many drafts to create a work of art, that we can't tackle all our challenges at once, and that composing and revision proceed in stages. After Harrison's visit, we discussed the stages of the writing process.
First, you imagine the work, think about it, and take notes about it, perhaps long before you actually begin writing. (Harrison, though, began the work immediately after a telephone conversation with the undertaker who would exhume her mother's body.)
Second, once you start, you work provisionally, knowing you'll have many opportunities to get it right.
Third, you work in stages, writing, revising, letting yourself learn what your subject is really about as you work.
Fourth, you figure out order, structure, and image patterns late in the process, though you may have some ideas from the start. You revise accordingly.
Fifth, you fine-tune the work, tightening where necessary, adding information your reader needs when necessary. You go through the work word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph.
Sixth, you don't show your work until late in the process. And then you revise again, based upon feedback. (After Harrison showed a draft to her editor, she deleted a hospital scene, material about her son, and revised again.)
Whether we're beginning writers or beginning a new project, understanding that working with the stages of the writing process, rather than against it, can help our work immeasurably, as my students learned from Harrison's visit and her generosity in describing her composition of The Mother Knot.
Copyright © 2014 by Louise DeSalvo