Shattering a Vase

 

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.

The Keep Writing Sign

“One of the pleasant things those of us who write or paint do is to have the daily miracle. It does come.” Gertrude Stein

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with American flag...

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with American flag as backdrop (1935 January 4) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m having a hard time getting this post started. First I wrote a sentence about buying Natalie Goldberg’s The True Secret of Writing but stopped half-way through. Then I began a sentence about the book’s title, finished it, and realized it had nothing to do with my topic. I’m still trying to get it right.

For most of us, the first sentence isn’t easy. Neither is the second. Often, the third is troublesome. Sometimes the process just goes on and on.

Okay, scratch that. There’s nothing new in it. I was trying to avoid using the first opening sentence I thought of, because it might be a little off-putting, and I didn’t want you to stop reading. But it’s only fair to warn you:

The section in italics is boring. 

It’s not necessary to read the whole thing, but at least skim a few paragraphs, because if you don’t, you’ll miss the point I intend to make.

Below is a draft I wrote for another group blog, Writing Wranglers and Warriors:

I’d planned to write about Shakespeare today, but a picture of a dress fellow Writing Wrangler Nancy Jardine shared stopped me in my tracks.

Copyright restrictions don’t allow me to display a photo here, and I could never describe it adequately, so I’ll post the link to Blonde and Wise and to a picture of the Bright Red and Yellow Trench Dress so you can see for yourself.

Now. Isn’t that absolutely track-stopping?

I confess I had to look up trench dress. I’d never heard the term. Imagine my surprise when I realized I’ve had trench dresses of my own. Although I love nice clothes, the technicalities have never interested me.

The feature of this particular dress that caught my eye was the plaid. It reminds me of my childhood. There was never a plaid my mother didn’t love and wouldn’t wrap me up in.

And that brought to mind the annual back-to-school treks to Comal Cottons in New Braunfels, Texas, where we bought patterns, fabric, and all the necessary notions to make back-to-school clothes. Friends from up the street and their mother came, too.

We made the trip in July, and started early, to get a jump on the summer heat. The outlet store, about thirty miles from where we lived, was filled with bolt after bolt of cloth. Mother walked slowly, running her hand across every bolt–it seemed to me she touched every bolt–and saying, “Isn’t that pretty,” or, “That color would look good on you,” or, “That would make a cute…” I followed along. My job was to chime about the colors and patterns I liked, but I trusted my mother to do the right thing, and I was bored stiff. I agreed with everything.

Next step, patterns: Opening long metal file drawers, pulling out packets of patterns… Simplicity and Butterick patterns were the best; but McCall’s instructions were confusing. Then, mentally matching styles with material we’d seen, taking patterns to fabrics to make sure, checking yardage and price, reconsidering… I was sure we re-examined every bolt.

By this time my feet were killing me. (I was born with feet designed for sitting). Comal Cottons had no chairs. Three bored tweens, one with aching feet, needed chairs. With chairs, girls can read books. Without chairs, girls stand around, one of them shuffling from foot to foot.

Then, decisions: making choices, stacking bolts on big tables, watching clerks cut material straight across, perfectly straight. and folded them. Despite its name, Comal Cottons also sold wool.

And then, the notions: buttons, thread, bias tape, zippers, lots more considering.

Clackson-tartan

Clackson-tartan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And finally we headed for the car, bearing loads of raw material that over the next six weeks would be made into our fall wardrobes. Which in my case would include a plethora plaids. My mother loved plaids.

By the time I reached high school, plaids had retreated from entire outfits to wool skirts worn with solid color sweaters, and trips to Comal Cottons had ended.

Now, like much else of my childhood, the store is a memory. Today it’s found on postcards.

Thank you, Nancy. With just one picture of a plaid dress, you brought back part of my childhood.

On and on and on. To quote my former high school students, BO-ring.

But as I wrote that last line, the daily miracle arrived: A treasured memory of a different piece of fabric surfaced. And then, another miracle:  I realized the story about the shopping trip was just a warm-up, an introduction, brain rubble that had to be expelled before higher quality thought could emerge.

Acting on the epiphany, I found my bit of fabric, snapped a photograph, and added three short paragraphs to what was already there. Finally, I deleted the boring prelude.

The final version–part of it, anyway–looked like this:

Fellow Writer and Wrangler Nancy Jardine recently shared a picture of a beautiful plaid dress that reminded me of  some fabric I’ve saved for more than fifty years. After residing all that time in my mother’s cedar chest, it’s wrinkled but intact.

The fall I turned eleven, my father’s father, whom we called Dad, gave Mother some money to buy me a birthday present. She purchased the wool shown in the photo and made me a pleated skirt. When I was sixteen, she remade it into an A-line skirt and a weskit.

DSCN1342

Note: That isn’t the end. There’s one more paragraph. Read it, please, at https://writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/a-scrap-of-plaid/ It’s important, too.

But back to the topic at hand.

To prevent further strike-throughs, I’ll get to the point promised in the Warning:

A boring (bad, terrible, appalling, disgusting, abhorrent, loathsome, etc.) first (second, third, etc.) draft is not a Stop Writing sign. It’s a Keep Writing sign, signaling that brain rubble is loosening up, that something better is in the offing–that the daily miracle will come. Because the only way to get rid of brain rubble is to write it out.

I wish I had more time to work on this. If I did, the daily miracle would arrive.

And this post might be on an entirely different topic. It would also contain less brain rubble.

Shattering a Vase

…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 even a family member, and they find fault, or don’t even 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, an exquisite 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.

I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and became 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.

That passage 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. But, on a more personal level, 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 itself 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.

*****

Note: I do love Chevalier’s novels. In fact, I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—just 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.

Note: The angel pictured above stands in the Oakwood Cemetery in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Carved from Italian marble, she is the angel often referred to in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe’s childhood home is in Asheville, about twenty miles north of Hendersonville.

*****

Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.

*****

Posted by Kathy Waller

Kathy

Kathy

Two of Kathy’s stories appear in
Austin Mystery Writers’ crime fiction anthology,
Murder on Wheels.
She blogs at Kathy Waller ~ Telling the Truth, Mainly,
and on the group blog, Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

My Valentine to Writing

Five members of Austin Mystery Writers post here regularly, and I sometimes wonder whether you readers know which of us is which. So I’m going to clear up any questions  concerning my identity.

I’m Kathy. I write about angst. Any time you arrive here to find weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the writing life, it’s my teeth you hear gnashing.

Kathy

Kathy

I’m writing this at home, but home isn’t the only place I gnash. I do it at my office, AKA bookstore coffee shop, in full view of the public. I try to emote quietly, but muttering carries. People around me, many of them equipped with laptops and writing assignments of their own, receive full benefit of my outbursts: “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” “Noooo.” “What’s the word? What’s the word?” “^!*%&@% network.”

(I don’t really say ^!*%&@% , but that’s what I mean.)

I suspect other writers gnash, too.

Consider American poet William Cullen Bryant, author of “Thanatopsis.” I can’t imagine his interrupting himself with undignified emotional outbursts, but no one who holds his forehead like that is easy in his mind.

Today, though, there will be no gnashing. Today I depart from the usual tales of woe to say, I love writing.

I love the exhilaration I experience when words flow onto the page.

I love finding just the right word to express my meaning.

I love revising, moving sentences and paragraphs around, cutting excess–words, paragraphs, whole pages.

I love writing an entire blog post and then scrapping it and writing something different. (As I did for this post.)

I love filling holes to add clarity.

I love watching a story develop: beginning, middle, and end.

I love–oh, how I love–line editing, slashing words and phrases, discovering the one word whose omission makes the piece smoother, tighter.

I love the joy I feel on reading the finished product–and finding one more word to cut.

I love the satisfaction and the surprise of completing a task I didn’t think I could do.

I love making something out of nothing.

I love making art.

I love creating.

I love saying, “I write.”

I love loving writing.

*****

Lagniappe, Freebie, Pilon

William Cullen Bryant wrote “Thanatopsis” when he was seventeen years old. The title comes from the Greek thanatos (“death”) and opsis (“sight”), and has been translated “Meditation upon Death.” He initially hid the poem from his father because it expressed ideas not found in traditional Christine doctrine. In the concluding lines, which my mother memorized in high school and sixty years later could recite from memory, the poet instructs how to “join the innumerable caravan” of those who have gone before.

*

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Imagine Bryant reading those lines. He must have loved writing.

See the entire poem here.

*****

029

To Write Is to Write Is to Write

Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write,which she plans to rename, and, every thirty days or so, with friends at Writing Wranglers and Warriors. She blogged at Whiskertips until cats took it over.