BY JUDITH WALCUTT
March 7, 2014
A thousand years ago, when I was in graduate school, a friend asked me to type his critical essay on an early 20th Century British fiction author. This gentleman’s fame may have vanished down the literary dustbin of time, but he had an insight into the writer’s life that I will never forget.
This is partly because I made a terrible typographical error when transcribing it from the hand-written draft, and partly because it is a simple summing-up of the daily life of an author, whomever he or she may be.
The line, which my friend found in some correspondence between this obscure author and someone truly famous, such as E.M. Forster, was simply this: “It is really very difficult to write a good book!”
The unfortunate typo that, fortuitously, my friend discovered before handing in the paper read: “It is really very difficult to write a good boo!”
All these years later, I remember them both and find them both unequivocally true—it IS really very difficult to write a good book and equally difficult to write a good boo. And by “BOO” I mean: something with kick, something with surprise, something that turns the mind around and makes a sudden unexpected difference—which is what, I think, a good book and good boo ought to do. Make you laugh, make you cry, make you feel something, make you see something—DO something, and not just sit there like a lump of words on the page!
This is the predicament I have been wrestling with since I last wrote here and the one I continue to face today. As I write this I am staring at the cover of my latest rendition of a book for which I wrote the first full draft in 2008, based on a tiny sketch of a prose piece written in 1997. I am now at version 5.5 of draft 28. That’s right. Draft 28. And I’m not done yet.
Sue the Screenwriter and I have been commiserating of late on the subject of reaching completion. She, too, is chasing the white rabbit of a novel down the hole of never-ending revision. Over a glass of good red at Ott and Murphy, we discussed the situation.
I have likened the process to a pantomime of one of Zeno’s paradoxes. It proposes that all motion is an illusion; for example, if we cross a room by half, each time we make the crossing we find that not only do we not get across the room but, eventually, we are moving backwards!
This is what revision looks like—a process of going halfway across the room every time we venture to reach the imagined end. Meanwhile the actual end recedes further and further into the distance. This ever-present vanishing horizon of conclusions has surely plagued every scribbler since language became a graphic phenomenon.
One whole version of my draft 28 was spent ferreting out unwanted repetitions of words or phrases that, once read, should not be read again. For example, how many times can you use the word “luminescent” in a vivid prose description before you have used it up?
And need I say that the condition I think of as Rewriting Reflux––or “the need to change words endlessly” is exacerbated by our available technology? In the old days—BPCD (Before Personal Computers, Duh)—you had to actually type words on a page, then make changes on that page and retype them all over again on another page! This was time consuming and, no doubt, contributed to many an author’s writer’s blocks, instilled either by a phobic fear of using too much paper or, alternately, the sheer terror of the single blank white page.
Modern technology has made it possible for me to have my cake, eat it too, and have another one besides. I can change whatever I want, as often as I want. And that’s the problem that engages a whole other kind of writerly angst: fear of changes that could potentially turn out to be bad ideas, such as renaming all your characters with silly alliterative monikers.
When I feel a wave of “fear of change” (changing anything—including a comma, to changing everything—including the plot) I have the easy technological solution. I can copy the entire document first and paste it in a new, empty space—a new draft, leaving the ghost of the old one behind in case, later on, I find it was better the first time.
And that’s where we return to where we started, halfway across the room with Zeno’s Paradox Novel—the one that won’t quit—ever closer to the end, ever further away.
Now that I have arrived at Draft 28, however, I am taking a moment to assess the situation. I am finally letting people other than my husband read the manuscript. And those readers, despite my best efforts to eliminate all examples of the little horrors from the text, keep turning up typos! It really is very difficult to write a good boo!
Because I have been too much alone in my writer’s room of late, I plan to go to the Hedgebrook-sponsored evening at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m. on March 12. The event will feature locally based Hedgebrook authors Betsy MacGregor, Peggy Taylor, and Vicki Robin, who will each be talking about their recent books. I am certain those three remarkable women wrestled with the same dilemma of how and when a book is finally, finally finished. I think I’ll ask them how they did it!
Judith Walcutt is an award-winning writer for radio, stage and TV. She has been the CEO of Otherworld Media, a production company for educational and entertaining public media, for over 30 years. Draft 28 of her novel, “The Painter’s Girl,” about smashed hearts and making art, patiently awaits her next set of changes and corrections.
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