Half my life is an act of revision.
– John Irving
I’m with J.I. It seems most of the second half of my life has been devoted unlearning the craft of writing. Despite having written millions of words in all manner of forms, creative writing remains tedious, if not downright torturous. When I write a short story, I can easily compile four or five drafts before it starts to look okay. My current novel underwent seven month-long revisions. Now I love to write, but this is too much. Hoping to short-circuit this busywork, I decided to perform an experiment on a human subject. I would observe myself writing to pinpoint where it bogs down by drafting a mini-scene and taking note of what I had to do to whip it into shape. Prompted by a short story I’m having trouble with, this text popped out of my head:
Melissa didn’t want to call Bill, but decided she simply had to. She got up from the table and entered the living room in search of her phone. At first she didn’t see the dog. She turned to leave and turned back. “No you don’t! Get down! Bad dog!” Zeppo the Spaniel sheepishly slunk to the floor and Melissa sat down on the spot he had warmed to phone Bill.
See how the words plod onto the page? That’s no surprise, given that I spent half my life writing expository prose in one form or another: memos and business letters; research papers and grant proposals; software manuals full of technical procedures. Such writing, experts agree, should be terse and to the point, well chunked by headings and summarized in bulleted lists. Desiccated paragraphs of straightforward declarative sentences featuring no-nonsense words.
It took an amazingly long time to unlearn exposition once I started writing articles and, particularly, fiction, and I never quite shook off my proclivity for prosaic prosody (or alliteration, it seems). It tends to take hold when I’m describing pictures in my head—scenes, actions, events—like the woman coming into the room and seeing her disobedient dog on the couch. Just the facts, Ma’am.
Notice that I omitted verbs from the last sentences of the last two paragraphs? You can’t do that as a tech writer. Well you can, but it’s frowned upon by editors. I dropped them just to loosen up. Didn’t seem necessary, just like the subject of this sentence. When conveying relatively abstract concepts, it seems I put words together differently than when I’m unreeling physical descriptions, painting what my mind’s eye sees. Makes sense. We use different areas of our brains when processing pictures and navigating through space than when forming words.
So why, I came to think, not make use of my disability instead of slapping myself on the wrist every time I expel a deadpan sentence that floats by the reader like a dead fish? Go with the flow, hang in the zone, stifle that inner critic, and let it all just burble out, however miserable its meter. And then, edit it mercilessly.
But that’s not so easy for a fellow who writes a sentence or two, gets up, and wanders around for several minutes before sending himself back to his seat and rubbing his nose in his document. If you must know, my writing process stutters so because I simply can’t decide what to say—or even what should happen—next. Try as I might, I find myself incapable of plotting out a story. Even if I know how it will end, getting there is more than half the fun; indeed, it’s why I write. And so, my creative process careens me around the house. In my perambulations I am either peering around mental corners to visualize what should come next or thinking about something else entirely. As when half an hour ago after finishing the sentence above that ends “…around the house,” I excused myself and went to the kitchen, where I cut up pieces of chicken for a salad for supper, even though it was still morning. After I washed my hands of that, I went back to work and rewrote that sentence before boldly scribbling on.
Writing is like night driving for me. The shapes of things aren’t apparent until they loom in cones of my headlights. If I’m lucky, features down the road illuminate themselves like lit-up billboards to highlight the way forward, but that doesn’t happen as much as I’d like, at least not on the literary paths I tend to frequent that approach my unknown destination by meandering along byways, not as the crow flies.
But anyway, that opening passage. Let’s see if I can wrestle it to the mat now:
As she swirled milk into her teacup, Bill’s countenance swam up from the bottom to taunt her. A sign. Melissa averted her eyes and pushed away, knowing she couldn’t put this off any longer. Where had she left her phone? Her eyes swept kitchen surfaces, then off she went to revisit the bedroom and the dining room before spotting the thing on the living room coffee table. Scooping it up, she crooked her torso around to march back, only to halt in mid-crook to croak, “Zeppo, you bad boy! Get off the couch! You know that’s off limits!” The Spaniel with the white monocle shook his head and slouched onto the floor. Melissa took his place and dialed Bill.
Okay, so Version Two is nearly twice as long, but see what you get for a longer attention span: contextualization; motivation; imagery; action verbs. More showing, less telling. Still not Joyce or Hemingway, but it’s at least a scene you can picture. So how did that happen?
I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: Version One isn’t what I originally wrote, and Version Two is the result of plot development, not just editing. Here’s Version Zero:
Melissa got up from the table and entered the living room in search of her phone. At first she didn’t see the dog. She turned to leave and turned back. “No you don’t! Get down! Bad dog!” Zeppo the Spaniel sheepishly slunk to the floor.
Besides some activity, what’s missing is cause and effect. Something Melissa doesn’t want to deal with causes her to search for her phone. Once she finds it, she uses it reluctantly, perhaps to clear her conscience. None of this was present in the fragment of my imagination I first jotted down. To sculpt it into literature I had to erect a semantic scaffold around it, a matrix of meaning. For present purposes (exposition!), it wouldn’t do to have Version One lack plot elements found in Version Two, so I retroactively added the new bits to the first version in raw form, paying no attention to grace and style.
I still don’t know what Melissa (or Bill) wants, but if and when that occurs to me, I can raise the scaffolding higher. And once I understand why Melissa needs to talk to Bill but is reluctant to call him, I can get a handle on their conversation and bookend my little passage to create a full-fledged scene. Of course, even then I won’t be done, because I don’t yet have a story that this scene slots into. You see how it works.
Well, now that writing this article has given me a ton of work to do, I gotta go.