I finished writing two books this winter, a memoir called Undocumented: A Different Story and a novel called Nunatak. The nub of the novel came to me ten years ago. The memoir has been in the works for twelve years. So five or six years a book. This raises some questions. Lifetime earnings from writing? Don’t go there. How many more books can I hope to write, assuming I live to a ripe and alert old age? Can I write faster? Spend less time making a living?
Not so fast. Are they really finished? Already an agent who might be interested in the memoir indicated cutting would be in order. I didn’t think, ‘No, every word is necessary.’ It was more like looking down and seeing a soup stain on your shirt. The outfit looked fine in the mirror at home. Good enough, anyway. But out here, the light is different. I mean, she could be wrong. It could be perfect. But I’m remembering cutting 40,000 words from the first book I got published. It was a better book by the end.
So it’s not finished. But it needs to be. It’s about living illegally in the US for twenty-two years then deciding to move to Canada. That was in 2006. Suddenly the undocumented are a hot topic. But Trump won’t be president for ever. (Or if he is, I’ll have bigger problems to fret about.) I need to get it published. A good editor would lick it into shape. But years of reading acknowledgements pages suggests that, these days, only authors with multi-book contracts have editors to thank. There are exceptions, I know, but my own non-bestseller writing experience bears this out. No editor in sight for my second book and only the publisher’s suggestion for the first: Cut a lot. 125,000 word maximum.
I’ve been rereading George Saunder’s lovely essay in the Guardian, What writers really do when they write. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar04/what-writer-really-write
What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she has already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. He describes revision as a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference […] The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?
I love this description. It is exactly what I do. But the optometrist doesn’t keep you in the chair for years. When is enough, enough? What is good enough? When I read the last page of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, I thought, there’s not a single word I would change. But what did she think when she put down her pen? (She didn’t save her file one last time. The book came out in 1980.) Perfect? Or good enough? As good as I can get it right now?
Has word processing made it too easy to keep revising? Often with painters – I’m thinking specifically of an exhibition of Berthe Morisot’s work – I love the sketches. I admire the finished painting but the sketches have a looseness and life that gets lost. In the course of revising one can sand down the grain of the writing.
Somehow you have to keep faith with the life of the story. It didn’t ask to be born to make you look good. It wants to become itself. In this version, revision is removing one’s pretensions. One’s vanities. How often I’ve thought, ‘Now that’s a nice sentence.’ I think it every time I read it until the day I see that the sentence stands out because it doesn’t belong.
Murder your darlings, Grace Paley advised. Yes, but what about wholesale slaughter? 40,000 out of 170,000? Perhaps I have to believe the book is finished. Only then, the umbilical cord severed, and after a proper interval, can I turn, look, think, ‘It’s alive. But what is all that goop? The poor thing can hardly breathe. Somebody, clean it up.’