Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Deconstructing the Reconstruction

Taking criticism is never easy, no matter how expert, apropos, or kind. We can feel our bodies seizing up, our hearts palpitating, our minds starting to whirl with refusals, excuses, explanations, denials. Of course, my original is perfect! They just don’t understand! But if we chose our readers wisely, usually we find they’re right. Maybe the solution isn’t exactly as they suggest, but there’s a kernel of truth in their issues and insights that we would all be wise to examine.

Orwell 1984 Draft

George Orwell's "1984", work in progress


I confronted this working on my latest revisions. My good friend Marina had given my manuscript a thorough, thoughtful once-over and we’d spent hours discussing her comments and suggestions. I spent another couple of weeks reviewing everything and organizing my thoughts. I had a plan, typed up in an orderly 17-page outline. Then I charged ahead, ready to put the plan into action.

Everything she’d suggested made absolute sense. She’d asked to know certain details about my characters, stakes, and cultural setting sooner. So often, we discover things as we go along. It’s a natural result of the exploratory writing process. But upon revision, we sometimes forget to question what the reader knows when. It just feels right to leave things where we originally conceived them. But if you’d been born with one arm sticking out of your waist instead of your shoulder – just a few inches down, really! – wouldn’t you want it moved?

I concentrated on my opening chapters, rearranging chronology and tucking in bits of back-story that had been threaded into the plot too late.
A couple of weeks later, I sent the revisions to another dear friend-reader, Karen, who’d seen earlier versions. She wasn’t a “cold reader”, which turned out to be invaluable. When she emailed me back, I sensed careful anxiety in her words: “I hate to say it, but I think the earlier version was better.”

OUCH! It had taken me a great deal of time and emotional fortitude to untangle and re-craft what I’d so carefully honed. Now would I really have to go back – AGAIN? After a little break, long enough to heal my punch-in-the-gut disappointment, I re-read what I’d done, saw exactly what Karen meant and, honestly, I agreed.

I was utterly grateful. I needed someone to be honest, and both my readers had been. The truth was somewhere in between. Some of the new version I really liked, but I had dampened the initial “magic” of my opening. How could I deconstruct my reconstruction without losing what was good, without destroying even more of what I’d already messed up?

So I took my painstaking but unsuccessful attempt, saved it in my “old versions” folder, and tried again. What I discovered was that Marina was right, but that I’d taken her too literally. Yes, there were pieces missing or that came in too late, but I didn’t need to deal with them all at once, and I didn’t need to move everything all around. My approach had to be subtler, like tying tiny, invisible threads, not applying Frankenstein-like bolts and ungainly stitches.

Another couple of weeks and I sent my new effort. Karen loved it. WHEW! Though I haven’t sent it to Marina yet. I’m trying to move on, a few more chapters before I turn to her again. Because there’s more to come. I don’t want to exhaust either of my readers. I need them fresh enough to give me a broad overview of what I’ve done, not comments on particular lines, paragraphs or even scenes. I need the whole arc….

And, yes, this is my fifth draft. I swear it’ll be my last, but don’t hold me to anything.


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Peeling the Onion

In his insightful essay, Found in Translation from last Sunday’s New York Times, author Michael Cunningham peels the many-layered onion of the authorial relationship.

His initial premise is translation, which one immediately assumes means language to language. And it does. Every book is re-formed into something completely new when it is translated, effected by the subtle shifts of meaning and even comprehension that come from refocusing through a different cultural lens.
Peeling the onion
But the layers of translation go deeper than that. Cunningham points to the truth that all of us are writing works in translation – that our conception can never be wrought in concrete form without undergoing a kind of transformation. It is never pure, never precisely what we’d original felt or witnessed in that perfect vision that lives in our minds. Writers learn to accept that we can never quite midwife our imagination into existence here on earth as it is in heaven.

And then there is the translation of our words by our reader. How many of us have discussed a character or scene we’ve enjoyed, only to discover that another reader envisioned the moment quite differently?

I was sharing the experience of a young adult novel, called Fish by L.S. Matthews, with my son. It’s a fascinating, simple story of a family’s escape from a nameless, war-torn village in Africa. What’s interesting is that the narrator is also nameless. About fifty pages into the book, I asked him how he imagined the character. “Oh, he’s a boy, about 7 or 8.”

“A boy?” I said. “I saw it as a girl!”

We both had shared the same words, the same journey. Yet our experience, our translation of the author’s intent (which was, no doubt, a translation of her own archetypal vision) was markedly different.

Our best hope in the struggle to achieve the purity of our vision, is to paint our tales with all the lushness, distinction and visceral truth that we can. Though we cannot create our perfect world here on earth, or in the minds of our readers, the vision they each experience as they read our words is the perfect merging of our imaginations and theirs.


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The Burden of Good Taste

I’m constantly captured by other writers’ stories – of course, their literary masterworks, but in this case I’m talking about their personal stories: how they struggled, how they anguished, how they sweated, persisted and survived (or sometimes not) until they managed to squeeze out something from their fingertips and hearts that moves us again and again.

I read these writers’ tales to find comfort in my own struggle, in the constant feeling that, despite my best efforts, yet again I’ve missed the mark. For writing, there is no formula, no rubric that explains for us unequivocally what we’ve done right or wrong. There’s only the subtle sense that, whatever it is, it’s just not quite there.

Ira Glass, host of “This American Life“, has as interesting explanation for this in this video:


It’s “because we have good taste”! As such, we know when what we’ve done is not up to snuff. If we couldn’t tell the difference, we probably wouldn’t sweat or drink or attend years of writers workshops or wake up to jot down notes in the middle of the night. We’d be happy with mediocrity and move on.

Instead we demand of ourselves months and years of revising. We subject ourselves to the opinions of others whom we hope – pray! – are wiser than ourselves. We tear up yet another stack of drastically edited pages and open up the file at Chapter One again. No one is asking us to do it. Very few of us have an anxious editor breathing down our necks. And yet obsession and the intractable vision of perfection spurs us to suffering. Or is it martyrdom? Or joy?

I came across two useful reservoirs of writerly angst, method and madness. First, from NPR.org, What’s The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write, and second, an online treasure trove of literary greatness, The Paris Review’s entire archive of interviews with some of this century and last’s most influential writers.

Needless to say, I haven’t had a chance to do more than peek into this extraordinary repository. But what I’ve seen displays the wisdom of experience and the depth of thought that must inform all efforts to create something worthwhile. There is no author out there who hasn’t had their share of struggle, self-doubt, and failure, even after monumental success. It is all a journey and all of us are constantly learning and relearning our craft.

As Ray Bradbury succinctly put it, “You fail only if you stop writing.