When I decided to become a writer with a serious writing habit in my early 30’s, I had a naive sense of what writing was. Here’s what my list of a writer’s tasks might have looked like then: write sentences that make readers think you’re smart, create characters who will make readers think you’re smart, and craft internal monologues that will make readers think you’re smart.
I’ll try to be kind to my former self by just saying that he was inexperienced and unsophisticated in the understanding of the work of a fiction writer. Not that I’m so sophisticated now, but having sustained a day-in-day-out writing habit for the past six years, I can see the flaw in my perception of writing.
As I work on the edits for the novel I sold to Hanover Square Press last fall, I am now realizing that writing is as much imagining and inhabiting your characters as it is writing sentences.
In my novel something bad happens. It’s horrific. The editor at the publishing house noted that I don’t let the reader stay in the scene long enough. The horrific moment is the release of the tragedy that’s been lurking in the background on every page. He felt that I didn’t let that moment develop and grow long enough. He was right.
So I sat in the vintage Airstream I use as a writing studio in the winter, and I opened my manuscript to the tragic scene. Upon re-reading the pages I realized I didn’t inhabit the scene fully. Perhaps I didn’t intuit that the scene needed to be longer so I let myself off the hook. More likely, as I discovered upon entering the scene again in my mind was that it was fucking painful space to enter. To really put myself in the middle of what was happening–to see the texture of people’s skin, the hard-angles of the eyes–was distressing. Emotionally and physically.
In my writing session, I kept trying to avoid fully realizing the scene by writing poetic sentences. The words were a crutch to not enter the chaotic emotional folds of the scene.
So I stopped writing. I shut the light off, put on the theme song from Twin Peaks, and placed myself inside these characters in this moment. It didn’t take long for me to start audibly gasping at what I was seeing in my mind. It also didn’t take long to want to turn the light on and open my eyes. But I made myself sit in this disturbing space.
When I had it–all of it–I put my head in my hands and cried. I tried to take deep breathes. My head ached in the way it did after my grandmother’s funeral. It was the aching of torment and confusion. I wrote the sentences depicting what I saw. The language wasn’t necessarily poetic, but it was clear and precise.
What I know now that I didn’t know in my early thirties is that the precision is more beautiful than the poetry–or maybe that’s wrong. Perhaps precision and clarity is the highest form of poetry.