Dear Karen –
I am thinking about the word fearlessness. You used it to describe the potter who smashed all his work, the painter slashing his canvas, the writer burning his work. Me, maybe, for my decision to start over. But really, it’s just process, and everyone’s is different. Besides, I don’t believe in fearlessness. If there is such a thing, I certainly don’t have it.
My process always involves searching for the portal. I never know when or where I’m going to find it. I might discover it on page 186 of the second first-draft of my novel, or maybe I won’t discover it until the third complete draft, as happened while writing my second novel. Or maybe I won’t discover it at all, as happened with my third novel, the one that remains unpublished and floated around in my closet until it finally floated to the shredder. Yep, I shredded it. There are some things I just can’t bear to look at. They hold no joy for me. This unpublished novel. All my journals.
Usually my leaving something behind is not so violent as the smashing and the burning and the slashing and the shredding, but once I burned three thick, five-subject notebooks filled solid with my tiny, slant-to-the-right script. The only thing I loved about those journals was the way the pages crinkled with the weight of the ink when I turned them, but I didn’t love the words. Whenever I started to read them I found that I couldn’t bear myself on the page. Was this self hatred? I don’t think so.
It’s just that I like the act of writing so much that I write a lot, often about nothing. Or I write a lot about some little problem I’m having, using the page as a place for working things out. In fact I can always count on my heart coming through when I sit down to write by hand in my journal. I can always count on the truth revealing itself clearly to me. That’s the purpose to me of the journal. After that, I have no use for them and I never read them.
I’ve learned and accepted this about myself and my journals, but one woman told me it was criminal to burn my journals. This struck me as a little strong, given the fact they were my notebooks and words to do with as I wished. I don’t feel that I owe the world my private thoughts for posterity.
Each night one winter, after loading the stove I used the poker to lift the pile of logs while shoving one notebook into the coals, then I’d lower the logs, damp the stove down and climb the stairs to my loft. The next morning I’d rake the coals, and there I’d find the coil from the spiral notebook glowing red, and wisps of paper with word ghosts on them. I could read some of them. Pipe. Party. Dinner. Roach. Sex. Bar. Frog. River. They floated independent of anything, separate from a sentence that might give them meaning to my life, separate from me. There was something liberating in that.
Letting go is not the same as giving up. It’s taken me years to understand that there’s a difference, and still I don’t always get it right. I couldn’t describe the difference. I imagine it’s something each person has to feel for herself. For me, with this work, I’m just abandoning a draft. I’m not abandoning the work. The starting over has begun (again) and I’m happy to report that I think it’s working much better. I could feel in the previous draft that it wasn’t working, although anyone might look at what I’d written and say there’s nothing wrong with that. And they’d have been right, except there was something wrong with it. My relationship with it was wrong. And it wasn’t wrong all along; it just became wrong.
What did I learn from the abandoned drafts? I learned enough to give me a better foundation than I had before. I learned a lot about the characters and the story. I learned that I had a story but needed a different structure. I learned that art is slow. There may be McNovels out there, but I don’t write them. I can’t write them. Like you say, things take time. And as I said in A Broom of One’s Own, “Time is the comforting blanket that cloaks all our days, as well as the rug we are constantly pulling out from under ourselves.”
Much love to you my writing friend,