BY JUDITH WALCUTT
May 23, 2014
These beautiful days have been very unsettling. Like everybody else in the Northwest, when the sun shines, I just want to be in it. I have all kinds of very good reasons to do so—whack the weeds, transplant rhodies, empty the shed, wash the car, clean the gutters, and sweep up cedar debris that has accumulated on the roof. I can’t believe it’s time to do that again—it feels like only yesterday when I got fanatic about moss eradication and spent days up on the roof scrubbing and scraping the green stuff away. Also, I am determined to wash the windows, so I can mind the sky from both sides of the glass. Today is absolutely perfect for any and all of the above.
There’s an equally long list of Things to Do inside, of course. “Things” like cleaning the laundry room and pantry. I’ve been waiting, I tell myself, for a good day like this one to do it—not too hot, not too cold, Goldilocks’ favorite temperature for opening all the doors and windows to air out the stale corners of seasons past. There’s also vacuuming the ceiling and capturing dust bunnies in a dust bunny trap made of micro-fiber and wielded on an extending wand, to get behind the dryer. I can’t wait!
And believe it or not, it is time to make preparations for jam, soon to arrive with strawberries and rhubarb from backyard gardens and, on the wild side, salmonberries which are already coming into their colorful pink, yellow and red hues of ripeness. I better get picking if I am going to catch that first batch in a jar!
But what about the storage units? For those of you who read me semi-regularly, you may remember it was about a year ago that I forewent excavating the caverns of STUFF stashed at Waterman’s—two medium-large units full of rubber snakes, plastic dinosaurs, and old records (both tax and vinyl)—in favor of cleaning my office. I took that Herculean task on at a point when, more than anything in the world (except maybe oxygen), I needed a clean desk and a fresh start.
I was about to begin a year during which I was fully committed to writing my own work, in my own way, on my own time. It was not easy. The layers of detritus blocking the way were decades thick. My children’s childhoods rose and fell in the mottled tides I paddled through—reams of paper, pictures and handmade Valentines. I made it through, though. I started my year of living word to word with a clean desk, knowing where my paper clips were, and recognizing the moment for what it was—a true golden one in which to write and hear myself think for the first time in many years. Finally, I had the time and space to write and no excuse not to.
That year went by in no time flat, as I somehow knew it would. I did my best to make the most of it and, even now, as I write this and contemplate all the chores I might be doing, both inside and out, I am playing hooky from my novel, which is in its 29th draft. And yes, there will be at least one more before the edifice leaves home without me.
This most recent rewrite was all about culling the notes from the twenty or so readers who kindly lent their time, minds, and eyes to Draft 28, to ferret out the typos, the mis-punctuation, some faulty adverbials, and, very occasionally, actual incoherence. Yes, incoherence—moments I was trying so hard to make sense, I made no sense whatsoever. Since it is a book about painters painting paintings and the people who love them and then don’t, or do, but then can’t, I have been dealing quite a bit with the ineffable nature of a primarily visual experience. I have made every effort, using good words I have stored up for decades, to describe the experience of seeing and then feeling a really spectacular piece of art work in a visceral way. I have equated, in the resolution of those words, the sum of that experience with love and if not love, then the thirsty longing for it.
Have I regarded what genre I might be writing in and have I tried to make it more or less like everything else allegedly like it? No, I have not. My story is its own snowflake. Why look for a crowd to stand in line with?
Have I written something true to the voice in my head, the one that is telling this story? I certainly hope so. I would not want to be lying about my character’s truth.
Will anyone else want to read it? We’ll find out.
I was extremely encouraged by the news from most of the readers (eighteen out of twenty-one) who shared an experience of starting the book and then feeling compelled to read it straight through to the end. That’s just what a writer wants to hear: “I couldn’t put your book down!”
Say that again, slowly, so I can enjoy the sound of the words!
The three dissenting opinions were all writers themselves, albeit of different genres and styles and, like writers do, gave me a sense of what might have been done, had they been the authors of this book. One suggested starting in the middle of the story and working back from there, which is a well-known writing-school technique. I sort of did do that, but in a different way than she prescribed.
Another dissenter just didn’t resonate with the voice, the style, or perhaps even the subject matter. That happens sometimes. I have all sorts of books I just couldn’t get into. I have never read Moby Dick or Mill on the Floss, for instance. Also, I ducked out at the end of Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here because I just lost the feeling for the final beat of the book. And as for David Foster Wallace––you can keep him! Not my cup of tea!
A third reader wanted more—more about everyone and everything. The book as written is a long novella or a short novel at around 50,000 words. Could it be a bigger? Yes, it could. Is bigger necessarily better? Not always.
I respect the critiques of all three, but know that I have to attend my own inner ear and sense of rhythm for the length and breadth of this work. The story has a simple arc—longing, love, smashed hearts, and making art. How many words are enough to tell it? I’ll find out when I am finally, really done.
As I sort through this 29th rewrite, however, I am considering certain remarks that some readers have made in common, such as including “more about the dog.” Yes, spoiler alert, there is a dog in this book. And he is no ordinary dog—this is a half-coyote, who, it is true, is very under-written. The dog upon which this dog is based undoubtedly would have enjoyed more time to lift his leg on the page and sniff around the underside of the story. But since three people said the same thing, I have to pay attention, by virtue of the Rule of Threes most often found in fairy tales. When the same observation crops up three times, it could be a vital clue and I may have to rewrite large sections of the book to accommodate this insight—or I may just have to write another book and call it, “More About the Dog? Here!”
But I am not there yet. I am still maundering through past participles and perhaps one too many semi-colons. It is slow going but once done with this literary equivalent of sanding the edges, I plan to go through it one more time, just to see what kind of book I ended up writing.
When that’s done, I can reward myself by doing anything from Column A or Column B—I can get on the roof or I can clean the closets, whichever is my pleasure at the moment. And then I can get onto the next part of this long and infinitely detailed process––which is the scary part!
What’s that you ask? Oh, the small matter of moving the manuscript from my desktop to somewhere out there, to the world at large, by some means as yet to be determined, to readers I have never met, who might read it and like it or might not, or else just wish for more about the dog here!
I am really hoping to be done with Draft 29 in time to take a day’s break and go to the Whidbey Island Garden Tour. Tickets are on sale now for the June 28th event. Go to http://wigt.org/ for more information. As for this weekend, I’ll be deserting book and chores to catch “Good People,” the play in its final weekend at OutCast Productions’ Black Box Theatre, located on the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds. Visit http://www.outcastproductions.net/ for ticket links.
Either way is a great way to spend time avoiding those vexing storage units once again!
Judith Walcutt is an award-winning writer living on Whidbey Island. Her new novel, “The Painter’s Girl,” is nearly ready for a trip to the Big City. She is a grateful alum of Hedgebrook.
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