“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.”
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Yes, Dillard again, and a Dillard quote that is one of those things that I know, that I have known since the first time I read The Writing Life, something that has been comfortingly true since that class at Lycoming College. That doesn’t mean that I don’t forget it sometimes, and I had one of those moments tonight, working on the novel.
I’ve come to that heady and dizzying place with the manuscript: the end is in sight. How that breaks down in any kind of temporal way, I certainly can’t say, but I can say that I can hear it now, and it’s not an echo. I’m doing a pass through from the beginning of it right now, ironing out the wrinkles for the elements it has taken me all of these pages to properly understand, to finish the scenes that I skipped because I had no idea what was really happening in them or I didn’t feel like writing them just then (sometimes, I don’t want to deal with conversation, in person or in print; some days, there is no stomaching a second more of interiority, mine or a character’s) and onwards was always better than grinding hours of stalemate. I need to see what may now need to flex and change.
Among those points of flex and change was a scene percolating in my mind, one that’s been saying you need me while I kept saying, “No, not yet. Not yet. Surely not yet.” And then I hit this flat spot in my read-through, about forty percent of the way through, a plateau that extended on into the distance because it was also one of those unfinished places. Unfinished because it wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t want to write it because it wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t know what direction even to point.
Tonight, a fair bit of it got pointed directly at the book’s scrap heap: cut and paste, right out of the proper living text and right into file that’s a kind of dry dock for me. I don’t actually delete very much. I wrote the sentences. Yes, sometimes they are truly trash, but more often, they’re the back of my brain telling me something I’m not ready to hear yet. I’ll come back to it.
I can’t tell you how useful a scrap heap or graveyard file is. It’s the thing that lets me cut with impunity (yes, paring away is ninety percent of my editing process and no one at all is surprised). It’s the thing that gives me the correct spaces to see the work, too: if I can’t see past one of these dead zones, I tear it out. Maybe I don’t need it at all. If I can’t understand what that pile of words is doing because there’s too much gravity pulling at the befores and afters, I put it on blank pages in the scrap heap, read it alone. No matter what, that text is not lost. I can (and do) go back to that detritus later, when I am searching for something that feels familiar, something that feels caught on the tip of the tongue (or the fingers). Chances are, I already wrote something of it. I just put it in the wrong place.
That may be the best lesson I’ve learned while working on this book: trusting my own process. Not worrying forward or backward, but feeling reasonably confident that the pieces I need would reveal themselves in time. It’s been working. (The scrap heap is good insurance. Trust, but also keep records.)
But now comes the point in the process when everything must be in the present. If I want to finish, I am past the point of “deal with it later.”
(I do want to finish.)
And tonight, it became incredibly clear: to hell with not yet. Now is the only answer. Put in the scene I’ve been saving.
In the process, too, I had to ask why I was holding it back, and the only answer to that is that I wasn’t sure what it would lead to, wasn’t sure where else it could go. I was thinking of the side-to-side movement, of shifting, like eyes, like my narrator rocking foot to foot when the only thing to do is to climb. I have given her a new hill.
Tomorrow, I trust that something else will arise after. She’ll have new places to put her feet.