If you want to know what novelistic intelligence is you might compare a page or two of Hilary Mantel’s work with worthy historical fiction by Peter Ackyrod or Susan Sontag. They are intelligent but they are not novelistically intelligent. –Andrea Barrett, “Dust,” the Paris Review, 209, Summer, 2014
Why “one perfectly chosen detail works better than an army of dutifully transcribed facts.” Advice we cannot hear too often as we struggle to write the compelling story, the portrait, the poem.
My dog Ben isn’t the brightest bulb but he knows what he wants. Even if he can’t have it (two balls at one catch!) he enjoys getting close.. like my writing practice, getting almost to the place I’m aiming for: chasing one or another delight or fear or obsession.
Writing is like that. Find a pleasure or an itch and scratch it until it doesn’t itch anymore. Then find something else to scratch, to pursue. There are so many wonders out there. So many wounds in need of healing scabs.
The main thing: write. Free yourself to discover. They say dogs don’t smile. Look closely at my pit-pointer. Ben may not be smiling but he looks content: almost achieving his dream of two-balls at one catch.
My friend, the opera singer calls it raking the leaves, the way, a teacher at the Curtis Institute taught her to play the piano — especially how to sight read at the keyboard, keeping time without being flustered about how many notes her fingers were missing.
It’s a good analogy to writing practice, to the way a writer must be patient putting down her thoughts, later raking out the weak or inappropriate words, i.e. the deadwood, and passive sentences into a powerful, creative order. An order that good writers know is itself a form of music.
When writing out your draft: First, pen (or pencil) or type the lines you hear in your head onto the page. Then, read them aloud to yourself. Listening carefully for their “rhythm.” Now, go back (this is the Raking)! This time allow yourself to delete or cross out or decide which of the words you’ve put down are the ones you truly want, which ones should move onto the pile for the bonfire or be taken to the dumpster.
Don’t destroy the early drafts too soon. Drafts are mulch.
A writer is always re-writing. Like a gardener, we are always raking, clearing undergrowth, pinching the dead-buds allows the new to bloom faster.
Keep writing. Keep putting down the thoughts that come across your head. This is your voice. Your instrument tuned only to your moods, your feelings, your intellect. Your experiences. Don’t be impatient.
John Donne said it in poem. Patience: hard thing. The hard thing but to pray.
The winter was impossible. Basement flooded, the favorite room, my writing studio. The car was vandalized. Then a blackout while driving. Three losses, not impossible, but challenging.
Now spring and three good things. A daughter’s marriage. A grant from Warren Wilson, a major assist toward completing the MFA in poetry. An offer to teach at one more venue.
A favorite set of threes: The Magic Flute, an opera rife with trinities. The little boys who calm the nerves of Papageno: Stop talking. Be steadfast. Oh, yeah, and play those chimes!