Prior to the substantive, meaningful discussion that I’m sure I’ll get around to somewhere down below, unless I have another glass of wine, this blog train is running for a while on unsused track overgrown with weeds, with an old red dog standing off to the side watching, while a boy up on a hill starts down through the pine trees toward a creek where he knows minnows live…
Hmm, wasn’t I going somewhere with that? Come to think of it, no. Except we can use the part about pine trees. I drove farther south a few days ago, down through a part of the state where the soil grows sandy and groves of pine trees line the roads. The ones I saw were sort of strange trees, quite tall, very skinny, and with greenery only at the top. It’s almost as if they’re a form of really ambitious grass. I drove past those trees to the town of Statesboro, to Georgia Southern University, to work a couple of days collecting air samples.
A long, long time ago, 40 years exactly, or 41, even more exactly, I was briefly a student at Georgia Southern College (they changed to a university later). I left and went to another school, also briefly, and then into the Air Force. I was recently told that Georgia Southern University has a reputation as a heavy party school, and after seeing the town, I see why. What else are students supposed to do there except drink and have sex? I mean, they could study, but c’mon, seriously.
The rambling nonsense above, with which I plan to litter the internet in a few minutes, is a deviation from my normally methodical, rational process of writing. My writing processs is my real topic here, so that stuff up above, ruining the page, that’s just introduction. And I was joking about “rational”, but you knew that.
When I’m not pouring out inscrutably hopeless drivel (think “blog”), when I’m trying to fool people into believing I’m a serious writer, working on a novel or short story, I actually write very slowly. For literary writing, the things that come from my heart and more than my heart, the ideas for that writing are always with me, occurring at odd moments during the day, yearning, pulling me to write, even when I have no time, or I’m tired, or just feeling lazy.
I do write slowly, and sometimes I’m a little surprised by how slowly. How can someone who creeps out word after word, as I do, have written five novels (two of them lousy)? By living a long time I guess. When I sit to write, and I’ve sat there for an hour and I’ve only added five or six sentences, I sometimes think “how the hell am I going to write an entire novel?” But I know how—word by word by word, eventually you get there if you keep at it. It’s true.
I was going to say something about the process. Wasn’t that my topic? In spite of the fact that I’m so slow and methodical, which I really am, I’ve learned that no matter what I write, later I’ll read it and think “Ewww, this isn’t very good.” I’ll rewrite it. I know that, so I’ve come to think of whatever I write as very rough, like a piece of wood fresh from the saw. It needs shaping, it needs polishing, it needs varnishing. It seems to me that it simply isn’t possible to write beautiful, polished writing without lots of revision. For me, anyway.
What I seem to do, on a first pass, painfully, is eke out a basic story line, and that already ain’t easy. I figure out how to move a character into a boat. With second and third readings I try to smooth out the clumsiness of the writing, so that it somewhat makes sense, and the character knows how to use a boat and they aren’t sailing out into bad weather. Eventually, I begin to shift attention to making the text read as if a writer with skill and linguistic sensibility had been in the room, and waves flutter across the surface of the water, like birds that appear, then sink, then reappear, as the sun widens into orange and pink profusion in the west.
It takes forever. I don’t really know why I do it. And yet there are moments, however rare, that are like being in love, that tell me “this is why you’re here”. Maybe that’s why I crawl through this process in the evenings. Word. By. Word.