Leaving the work behind


Dear Nancy:

Last end-of-week as I drove through Maryland and Virginia and a bit of West Virginia then finally on toward Johnson City, Tennessee, I kept hearing a line out of a Cormac McCarthy novel in my head.  “And they rode on.”   I rode on past a sky laden with storm clouds.  Past the first forsythia blooming in the median.  Past a giant sign like an icon for a Greek Orthodox Church.  And as I rode, I also thought about you there in NC, beginning again.

“Tomorrow,” you say, “I start over….the (novel) draft I intend to abandon tomorrow is 186 pages.”

I myself have just reached the end of one road with a work of my own, at least for now.  350 + pages of a novel that has been with me for almost seven years.  The novel has evolved from 100 or so pages of bits and pieces.  I originally wanted to layer those fragments in a narrative echoing Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.  I wanted it all to be a kind of meta-narrative involving all kinds of other stories from journals, a lost diary, letters, found pieces of magazines and newspapers.   The novel has changed drastically, become more linear, has accumulated more characters, become a love story.

As I rode on last week, I kept seeing my own three hundred some pages caught in the drift from passing semis along the highway.  In reading your last letter, I admired not just your gumption, but what could have been my own.  All those pages unbound and scattering along the highway and finding new homes out there.  I admire you in your leaving-behind, your starting again.

I was reminded of other artists I’ve known who’ve left works behind and begun again.  Back long ago, my then sweetheart was an assistant to a potter.  I remember one rainy night and sitting out near the kiln as it fired, all of us bared skinned and sweating, our own private sauna, our eagerness for the new work we’d see the next day.  The next day, when the potter unloaded the kiln, the work was imperfect.  I don’t remember what the flaws were exactly.   Too dark.  Too light.  Cracks in the glaze.  He smashed everything.  My sweetheart began again, all that horsing of the clay.  I’ve seen others starting over. A painter who slashed a canvas.  A friend whose writer father burned all the pages of a book in progress.  Fearlessness, all of it.

And yet I know, at least at this point, that I could not abandon a draft.

In the first place, there’s the persistence factor.   It takes me eons to really reach someone’s heart, no less my own.  I have friends I’ve known since I was nine years old.  I have friends I’ve hit rock bottom with and climbed back out of the discord with and ridden on with until we figured out the script.  I have long-kept objects all over the place in my house.  A plastic model of a car my grandfather got when he financed his truck at the First Federal Bank in Paintsville, Kentucky, before I was born.  A cardboard tube full of Tinker Toys, wooden ones, before Lego even dreamed itself.  I could almost be a hoarder, the little things I hold on to from this time, that time.  Times, before and now and yet to come, all accumulate in a fabric, an often multi-layered canvas that becomes my prose world.

I guess what I ‘m saying is that I ride on with the work, too.  Tote it in my back pocket.  Carry it on my back.  I don’t readily move on to the next rest area, the next town over the ridge, and leave what came before behind.  It all accumulates.  Hence, I guess, my love of writers like McCarthy.  Or Virginia Woolf.  Or Marilyn Robinson.  Or Leslie Marmon Silko.  Work that is multilayered, that takes intense listening to its language, the dimensions of time.

I teach that way, too.  For several years now, my workshops have been about discovering the “intentions” or “heartwood” of a piece.  We discuss what a work is “about” at its deepest level, its farthest down inside heart.  Then we discuss how to get there.  Which, of course, if you believe Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, could take up to ten years of work.  The heart of the work unpacked, little by little by little.

But as I drove I also remembered this.  Once I heard the poet Maxine Kumin read and she described a file she keeps called “the bone pile.”  The bone pile was all the poems, lines, images she’d abandoned, at least for now.  The bone pile?  Something you do abandon for awhile.  Something you’re sure to draw on at some point for a new thread, a new direction, a new road to travel.


With much love,












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