Tied up in knots - Building a book, finishing a book

The art of slow writing - Louise DeSalvo 2014

Tied up in knots
Building a book, finishing a book

While composing her acclaimed novel Swamplandia! (2011), Karen Russell became “convinced it was doomed.” After her short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006), received so much acclaim, Russell had high expectations for herself in writing her first novel, which she had to abandon: “The goal,” she said, “was no longer to write the Great American Novel. It became … just write a novel.” Russell learned that though you feel despair, “you don’t really have to respond to it. You can feel like the thing you’re working on is doomed and then just keep working.” She realized that it “takes time” to figure out the solution to complex writing challenges; she wished that someone would tell her what to do, but she had to figure it out herself.

Despite her doubts, Russell continued working through more drafts than she cared to admit. The resulting Swamplandia! was named a New York Times Best Book of the Year in 2011.

Have you ever gotten yourself tied up in knots as a writer? Has your work ever appeared so tangled you fear you’ll never be able to unravel it? It happens to most writers. It’s happened to me many times. And I believe it happens because we’re ambitious, which is a good thing. We reach for the stars, we stretch our limits, we try a new design. But to complete a tangled work, we have to assess what we have, determine what’s working and what’s not. We might need to scale back our ambition, as Russell did. We might have to opt for a simpler design, while still reintroducing some radical elements that might well become the hallmark of our aesthetic. Or the solution might be more complicated.

When Virginia Woolf was writing The Pargiters, her early draft of The Years, she tried alternating prose interchapters about women’s issues in Victorian and Edwardian England—“telling”—with fictional chapters—“showing.” In writing The Pargiters, Woolf wanted to conjoin her talent for nonfiction and fiction into an artistic whole.

Woolf didn’t find a successful formula and repeat it. Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves—each presented a different challenge that Woolf successfully surmounted. But Woolf determined she couldn’t pull off the ambitious design of The Pargiters.

So, what did she do? She became despondent, but she kept working and didn’t abandon the book. Though she believed the novel was a failure, she devised a solution. She extracted the fictional chapters and turned them into The Years. And she took her polemical essays and used them to write Three Guineas, her diatribe against the mistreatment of women, imperialism, and war. Woolf emerged from her tangle writing The Pargiters with not one but two books. Not bad, considering Woolf believed the work to be unsalvageable. And she learned from that experience. For her next novel, Between the Acts, Woolf opted for a simpler design with a bravura pageant enfolded into its narrative arc.

Could Woolf have pulled off her plan for The Pargiters? Maybe. But probably not. But coming out of this challenge with two books to her credit was an ingenious solution to a difficult problem. Still, rather than praising herself for her steadfastness, Woolf criticized herself and called The Years a failure.

I believe it’s important to complete works. But it’s also important to admit something isn’t working and do something about it—bail out of it or reconfigure the design so it does work. Woolf knew that The Pargiters wasn’t working. She found an ingenious artistic solution. Still she chastised herself for her inability to complete her book as planned. I believe, instead, that nothing along the way to a satisfactory completion is a failure. Even works put aside deliberately aren’t failures. Paradoxically, they can teach us more about writing than easily written, successful attempts. They can teach us that there are limits to our ability, that sometimes we have to admit defeat, that our willingness to redirect our efforts indicates the kind of flexibility we need to develop as writers.

In my own tied-up-in-knots book, On Moving, I tried to combine a narrative about moving with one about my parents’ lives during World War II. After several years, I realized I was in over my head. When I determined my book wasn’t working, I called Christina Baker Kline, author of the bestselling Orphan Train (2013). She’s a brilliant novelist, and a fantastic editor. “Help me figure this out,” I said, when I gave her the work to read. The manuscript was as polished as I could make it, even though I knew it wasn’t working and that it wasn’t finished.

Kline read the work and said, “You have two books here,” which I suspected. And she told me specifically what she thought I should do. Extract all the material about moving into one book and write more about famous writers’ moves and their thoughts about relocating. Extract the material about my parents and save that for the other book. Write the moving book first. I took her advice and finished On Moving in two years; I’m working on the book about my parents now.

So what should we do if our work is tied up in knots? I wouldn’t suggest stopping work immediately because, as Russell’s experience indicates, we might be able to pull off a complex design if we keep working. But I would say that when we repeatedly dread going to the desk; when we feel as if we’re drowning in the complexity of our own design; when we’re feeling hopelessly confused beyond the normal confusion that attends the writing process; and, most important, when our writing is making us ill (as writing The Pargiters made Woolf ill), we might consider stopping to rethink what we should do.

And we can ask for help, as I did. We can ask a writer we respect for specific suggestions about the work. We can listen, really listen, to what we’re told and reconsider our plan. We might decide to carry on. We might decide that we have two or even three books that need to be untangled. We might decide to abandon the work. But we must remember that writers who take risks, who want to grow as writers, will almost inevitably get tied up in knots. That won’t happen if we continually repeat a tried-and-true formula. But to do so will mean artistic stagnation, not growth.