This is almost amusing, writing about the progress of a manuscript while I’m still sorting each step, but I suppose it’s instructive, too. Instructive for me to examine my process and instructive for those who assume, because I’ve been publishing for forty years, I have moved far beyond the two steps forward, one step back jig so many manuscripts seem to require.
Two weeks ago I wrote about starting over on my memoir. I spoke of the letting go I did when I decided to write it in prose instead of verse, and then the second letting go of returning to the verse when I decided that my new prose approach wasn’t the answer either. After the second letting go I settled to the task of getting the verse assembled into a cohesive whole.
But then a writer friend joined me in a short retreat in the beautiful bluff country of southeastern Minnesota. She arrived from Vermont with a novel she has been working on for a long time. I brought the memoir I’ve also been working on for a long time . . . and we both brought questions about our work.
These were my questions: Did it matter that the verse wasn’t all of equal strength? Would it even be possible to bring everything up to the same level? Were the leaps I was taking, the great chunks of my life I was leaving out, a problem? And the scariest question of all, was I using the quick-in, quick-out of verse as a way of avoiding exposing my own vulnerability?
I had chosen to write in verse initially because of a firm rule I have always lived by in my writing life, I don’t write about other people in my life, at least not about those still living and reading. Writing in verse allowed me to skip over anything I didn’t want to talk about … like a 28-year marriage, for instance. But was I using my ability to pick up a topic and put it down again to avoid asking the hard questions about my own life, too? And what possible value can a memoir have if it doesn’t take on hard personal questions?
Here are the answers that came back: The fact that the verse wasn’t all of equal strength was a problem. And I probably wasn’t going to be able to bring it all to the same level. The leaps were a problem, too. And I did seem to be hiding behind the form. My friend suggested, gently but firmly, that I start over again in prose.
She said it all in a context of fierce support for the memoir itself. She told me again and again how much power there is in my life’s story. She reminded me what an accomplished writer I am, what an accomplished prose writer. And she spoke warmly of what I had already achieved in verse.
Interestingly enough, another good writer friend, someone with whom I often trade picture-book manuscripts for vetting, had said some of the same things six months ago. But six months ago I wasn’t ready to hear it. The fact that she had said it, though, helped make it possible for me to hear it now.
And so once more I’m letting go. Truly letting go. When I tried shifting to prose last time, I simply took my verse and elongated the lines. So I wasn’t really changing what I was doing. This time I’m not even going back to look at the verse. I’m just writing the stories I first wrote in verse again … without leaving so much out this time around. The fact that I’ve already written these stories in such a condensed, such an intense form makes the new writing easy. The words tumble out in an eager stream.
Does this mean the months and months I spent trying to make this manuscript work in verse were all a waste? I don’t think so. In the first version I discovered the stories I want to tell. And my plan is to retain some of the verse to introduce each section, so some will survive in its first form. And the refinement of language and thought the verse demanded has honed my story for the telling. So I’m grateful for what I have done … and excited to begin what feels like the definitive draft.
And my friend. Well … I read her novel-in-progress and told her how much I loved her characters, was compelled by her voice, admired her writing. I also told her I thought she hadn’t yet found her through line and that she needed to think about that and start again.
Did we each permit ourselves a sigh? Of course. But once the sighing is done, good work lies ahead.