On the Best Part
I often tell my students that the most satisfying part of working on a book is the last third or so–when you’re deep inside of it, but you can make out the horizon and suddenly–after years of struggle–everything in the world, everything you see and hear and happen upon, seems to be there to help you. An overheard snippet of conversation illuminates some small piece of the story. A sign on the road makes something inside your head fall into place. It all begins, however briefly, to make sense. I remember where I’ve been during the last thirds of each of my books. When I was finishing Picturing the Wreck, it was August and I was in a top floor study of a rented house in Sag Harbor. There was an Italian market two doors down, and I took breaks every couple of hours and walked a few steps to the market for some biscotti and cappuccino. I finished Slow Motion in a tiny cottage in East Hampton. Family History, in the wonderful Writers Room on Astor Place in Manhattan. And Black & White in an office I had for a while near my house in Connecticut. Now–as I am rounding the bend in Devotion, as I see the horizon I never thought I’d see–I am at my desk, in my office at home. It is a book about daily life, and somehow I have needed to be right here, in the beating heart of my own daily life, in order to find the through line of it.
But even as the remaining pieces of my new book line up like good little soldiers, even as I am holding it all in my head, it’s so easy to lose sight of what I’m really doing, which is finishing a first draft. I often think of Michelangelo’s famous quote about creating The David: the sculpture was already there, he said–he just had to remove the marble. Writers often mistake the blank page for the marble. But the blank page is just that — blank. It’s the first draft that is the real material to then be chiseled and shaped and smoothed. My husband has been finding some great quotes about writing, lately and here’s one he sent me yesterday from Annie Dillard:
“The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it progresses, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph’s role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work’s ends.”