Monday, 2 December 2013

On Sleeping with Your Manuscript

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
Annie Dillard

This writer, who is busy muscling her way through a new series of short stories, is feeling the rub. How mischievous is the mind! One ecstatic moment the story seems a shimmering equilibrium, the next it seems like a dumping ground for word waste. How to manage the rollercoaster, I do not know. There must be inbuilt filters in the artist's mind: this is trash; this is glorious!

I don't usually read writing manuals, mainly because I'm afraid that the few ideas I have will, er, be upended and I will go scuttling back to base. But these words of advice featured on the astute Brain Pickings blog are ringing a clear bell.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

How true is this? How jumbled and hopeful you are at the outset with your bundle of words and a hot drink, then becoming more sure-footed as events, tone and language take hold. But how fearfully one sets out, placing every word painfully, terrified of going off upon an irrelevant tangent, a track that is meaningless. And then your muddy footprints are so evident at the head of the page. Do you cover your tracks? Have you reached the box canyon? Are you able to jettison your soft and careless beginnings and slide into the body of the work?

Dear Catherine, 
Writing is subtraction.

Interestingly, Brain Pickings highlights Dillard's two editing scenarios. Edit-as-you-go, or let your words unbundle, identify what their shape might be, and prune sharply. I'm an edit-as-you-go freak, especially with the short story where each word must earn its keep and, in being discovered and employed, propel the story to its resolution. I cannot write in a blindman's flurry at all - it just becomes catastrophic, a writing orgy, like my daughter's room on a Friday night. I'll get everything in my wardrobe out and wear it every which way.

I'll leave you with some parting words from Joan Didion,

I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. 

I love this one. Call me silly but I've always slept with my manuscript next to my head.


  1. I sleep with it, too! Mostly, so I can leap up and scribble something on it in the small hours! And the part about needing some notes to start the next day with - feeling in low spirits without a plan for the day - that's true for me.

    1. I'm not a great scribbler in the night. I've tried it and I just seem to write... trash. But I do have a sense of the manuscript drifting over, asking questions of my perhaps wiser subconscious mind, and those two having a natter (possibly about the dumb writer between them). Almost sounds like secret lovers! And yes a day without a work plan means sliding down the slope.

  2. ... the ms drifting over, asking questions of ... unconscious mind...' love it, and yes. Absolutely.

    1. So true, isn't it? Just drifting.. words and ideas.. One can wake up exhausted however !

  3. There must be some feng shui element to having the pages close at night. I'm happy to leave my scrapalanche in the other room, though it seems I may be missing a trick.


    1. Not only is my house pretty feng shui I'm also very superstitious! The teapot must be turned around three times, salt never spilt on the table. Once you've embarked on a trip never turn back. Kiss the four walls before you leave and you'll come back... My poor kids have had to listen to this crap xxcat