…it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters…
~ Tracy Chevalier
When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.
I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.
But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”–was listening to students who thought their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.“
Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.
“Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that no, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing comes from more than just time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter.
Now, to my dismay, I sometimes find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or an agent, or a publisher, or a reviewer, or a family member, and they find fault or don’t mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…
Each time it happens, I pull out the old talk about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.
And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.
Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next (third) novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The finished manuscript was a disappointment.
When I reread the first draft, she says, I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.
She found the solution in another contemporary novel:
I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.
The revision was published as Falling Angels, a novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices. It’s exquisite.
I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and had become obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that.
Recently, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:
I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.
Chevalier doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.
I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print, for reminding me that hard work and drudgery aren’t synonymous, for implying it’s okay to cry over a bad draft, and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.
And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.
It’s the words on the page that matter.
Confession: I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did, but patrons didn’t seem to notice anything different, and I finished the book.
This post appeared on the Austin Mystery Writers blog on September 2, 2015.
Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.
Image of Hamlet and his father’s ghost by Henry Fuseli via Wikipedia [Public domain]
Book covers via Amazon.com
M.K. Waller’s short stories appear in AMW’s crime fiction anthologies Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and online at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.