It's strange to be at the beginning of a new book. It took me years to write my first, Yoga Bitch, and now that I'm embarking on a fresh first draft, I find I am a bit adrift. I'm about 20,000 words into my new book, and I gotta say: so far, it is a huge mess. It's swampy. I need Wellies and the promise of a hot bath just to think about venturing in.
Reading through this beginning draft is rather harrowing. The first chapter does a decent enough job of setting the story in motion, but this introduction soon gives way to gungy swampland for twice as many pages. Eventually I hit upon another section that kinda-sorta works. Then one that really does, and for a moment I go operatic thinking about the possibilities of this story. But just as I hit my highest note, I step up to the knee in swampland again. Muck and mess. And then I notice that the scenes that work best were mostly written in the fall of 2009, when I was supposed to be working on Yoga Bitch. I've been staring at these scenes, with their emotional arcs, their teased-out ironies, their occasional metaphors, and I keep having the same thought: How the hell did I do that?
I seem to have forgotten how to write.
I've just written and deleted far too many paragraphs in this post because I promise you, dear reader, I do not wish to bore you. But in the deleting and shaping, I've hit upon my problem, the reason I stopped working on a chapter mid-sentence in order to write this post:
It's that cunty editor of mine. Not the one at Random House; she's lovely. No, I'm speaking of the one who lives in my head. She who will not tolerate chaos, who has no time for unruly emotion and who loves nothing more than an oppressive deadline. The one with formaldehyde running in her veins.
Structure, structure, structure! She cries. Or no. That's too passionate an utterance. Structure, she says. Primly. Knowing that repetition weakens an argument.
This new story is a big one, about love and betrayal, sex and identity. When I fantasized about writing this book, I imagined it bursting from my fingers like sorcery. I forgot how treacherous a first draft can be; how words elude me, how my voice betrays me, bopping about from hysterical to ironic to desperately sincere. Only six months ago I was working on a final draft. That stage in the writing couldn't be more different. Six months ago I felt as confident as a calligrapher. Now I'm a four year old holding a jumbo crayon.
My editor self squirms at the work ahead of her.
I love revising. Writing, however, is excruciating, like running a marathon with only one lung. And one leg. Backwards. While everyone I've ever cared about is watching from behind a scrim. And there aren't any runners to follow so I can't tell if I'm on the right track or not. Maybe the route winds through the trees. Maybe it runs along the freeway. But editing? Editing is where it all happens. That's when I feel like I'm finally in control.
My director, Jean-Michele Gregory, and I often talk about this stage in the writing as the time when the fabric is woven. That's all I'm doing, creating bolts of fabric. When this is done, I'll remove the fabric from the loom and hand it over to the seamstress, my editor-self, who will fashion it into something wearable. Sure, she might create a dress only to discover that it would make a better skirt. But right now, her job is to sit tight, to look cute in her high heels and sweater set, making only the occasional suggestion.
But if she complains that I've said the same thing three times already? If she notes that the tangent about the construction of identity, or the one about learning to put condoms on cucumbers, are respectively pseudo-intellectual and mortifyingly juvenile? If she points out one more time that I have the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old, that I have no dignity as a writer and that Freud would have a field day with my work; if she dares to mutter under her breath that my mother WOULD NOT APPROVE? Well, then, I must banish her pretty little ass to the waiting room. (In this fantasy, my inner weaver of fabric is working in a mental ward, right next to the electroshock machine. Guess I should've mentioned that earlier.)
That's it, really. That cute little editor in her well-cut skirt is making me crazy. She's such a know-it-all. So uptight. She wants everything to be tucked away nicely in drawers, on shelves. She's wants color-coding, not chaos. She's asking for country club dignity when it's time for hysterical weeping and poor personal hygiene. She's on a schedule, but you can't schedule this work. This work is wild. There's no room for perfection at this stage. And if I'm honest with myself, I wouldn't want to read the work of a perfectionist. I want to read the work of fuck-ups, of the lost and grappling.
Procrastination is a wonderful way to write. The scenes I wrote last fall, when I was supposed to be writing Yoga Bitch, feel free and easy. They follow their own internal logic and land someplace satisfying and yet unexpected. I wrote them mere steps ahead of a guilty conscience. I felt like I was getting away with something, and so I didn't worry about deadlines or structure. All that concerned me was the story. I wanted to tell the story.
If I look at these fifty working pages in front of me, that's the real truth. The sections that work best are those which aren't trying to find theme or structure, but only story. Theme and structure seem to spring fully-developed from each smaller story within the larger one. My inner editor trusts me when I'm telling a story, and she sneaks out for a cigarette to let me do my work. And though I've given up the habit, I still love smokers, and so I must admit I do love my editor -- when it's the time to love her -- and will invite her back in soon enough.