Writing Is a Process (that Your Inner Critic Treats as a Product)
Do you ever feel suddenly convinced that you can’t write one more word (of your novel, memoir, Ph.D. thesis, etc.) without going back to revise what you’ve already written? Suddenly you’re walking in cement boots, dragging your way forward. “Go back!” your inner critic cries. ”Get it right and then you can keep going.”
What’s just happened is this: you were engaged in a process, which by definition means that you can’t know where it will end up until you get there. But your Inner Critic wants to stop that process in its tracks. ”What have you got here?” (product). “This is no good.” (product). “Go back over it and make it better.” (product). Pay no attention. Keep going, whatever happens, by reminding yourself: writing is a process. There will be plenty of time to revise once that process is complete.
She Turned Her Head Away by Patricia Moffat. Subtitled “An Adoption Memoir”, this book is in fact so much more than that. Sometimes it reads like an intelligent whodunit (as the author pursues the trail of her birth-mother), sometimes like an insightful psychological novel. And on every page, it provides what I think I primarily read for: a fully engrossing immersion in another person’s life.
But adoption is, after all, the book’s raison d’etre, and I often thought as I read it, “This book should be provided as a case study in how to stay ‘on topic’.” I don’t think Moffat gives single detail that doesn’t pertain directly to her subject, which in her hands becomes an absolutely fascinating one.
In her Acknowledgements, Moffat mentions that “Taking a Freefall writing course in 1991 from Barbara Turner-Vesselago spurred my interest in returning to this manuscript after almost two decades of neglect.” I am delighted to think that Freefall played a part in the creation of this excellent book.
To be open to writing is to be open to all the familiar parts of the writing process: the elation, the discouragement, and all that lies between. Welcome discouragement. Without it, you’ll get nowhere, even though it can be the hardest of your old friends to love.
You must hold your quiet center,
where you do what only you can do.
If others call you a maniac or a fool,
just let them wag their tongues.
If some praise your perseverance,
don't feel too happy about it —
only solitude is a lasting friend.
You must hold your distant center.
Don't move even if earth and heaven quake.
If others think you are insignificant,
that's because you haven't held on long enough.
As long as you stay put year after year,
eventually you will find a world
beginning to revolve around you.
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I think I’ve written before about this jewel of a novel, written in the 1950s, when the novel had aspirations for itself that are only a distant memory now. It’s as intimate as it is rich in metaphor: a beautifully written book that no amount of time or the making of a film version should obscure. I’m reading it now for the third time in about 30 years, with pleasure.
The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens. So many memoirs these days seek uniqueness by bringing two unlikely things together. Here, a fictionalized love affair between Victorian novelist, Mrs. Gaskell, and American writer, Charles Elliot Norton, is paired with the author’s mysterious, on-again, off-again relationship with Max, her present-day lover. Amazingly, Stevens pulls this off very well, with fiction (about Gaskell) that feels real and memoir sections that have all the drama of fiction. I read it because a reviewer claimed it rivaled My Life in Middlemarch, as the remarkable expression of a reader’s love for a particular writer. And so it does.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This sprawling family saga explores the world of Korean immigrants living in Japan (who currently number 700,000). Many jobs are closed to these “resident aliens”, but the “pachinko” (pinball) emporiums they run gross over $200 billion annually, or 30 times the annual revenue of Las Vegas (who knew?). Tenderly and with compassion, Lee evokes this fascinating society through 4 generations of a single family, where the long arm of pachinko makes its presence felt on a number of levels and in a variety of ways. It’s a book I found well worth reading.
Most of us are aware of the oft-cited truth that the passive voice (‘The ball was hit by the boy.’) does not work as well, when you’re writing creatively, as the active voice (‘The boy hit the ball.’) You can immediately see that there’s more energy in the latter. But I’m often surprised by how typically people resort to other passive constructions to convey the world in which their story is set: “The chair was by the window,” or the ubiquitous “There was a chair by the window.” It’s as if the chair is sleeping there, just waiting for someone to come in and give it a shake.
At the final, copy-editing stage, when such considerations come into view, wake up your settings. Use active verbs, rather than citing passive states: “The chair stood by the window” or “waited by the window”. You’ll find your writing gets a sudden burst of life.
I can be alone,
I know how to be alone.
There is a tacit understanding
Between my pencils
And the trees outside:
Between the rain
And my luminous hair.
The tea is boiling:
My golden zone,
My pure burning amber.
I can be alone,
I know how to be alone. By tea-light
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I haven’t seen the BBC movie (with Redgrave and Coleman), though I would love to. But the book that gave rise to it, a Gothic suspense novel to rival (more or less explicitly) Jane Eyre, strikes me as being, as much as anything, a celebration of reading. The main character, who lives in her father’s bookshop, has been chosen to write a biography of the most famous living novelist in England, Vida Winter. To do so she must live in Winter’s (possibly haunted) house, comb through the burnt-out shell of the decaying mansion where Winter grew up, but above all sort her way through Winter’s various versions of her life story, itself the missing story from a book Winter has just published. Did I say that both she and Winter (separately) are twins, with lost doubles who haunt their footsteps and absorb their waking thoughts? “Which reality do you choose?” seems to be the question everyone’s lips. And the answer: “Which one do you prefer?”