Writers face a task unlike most of the arts. In music you can judge how well you’re doing by simple comparison to the original song you’re trying to cover. In visual arts it isn’t unusual to see young painters in museums copying the masters, measuring their progress by their ability to replicate Van Gogh or Rembrandt. But writers have no such opportunity. We can’t simply retype a volume of Hemingway and hold it up at the end and say, “Check it out! For Whom the Bell Tolls Baby! I’m getting better every day!” No. It is a crapshoot. If we appear too much like one of our idols, we are emulating too closely. If we have too much of our own voice too quickly we are terrified and, often, ridiculed for straying from the canon.
That’s why I love small chores with immediate results. Washing the dishes is a good one. Laundry. Cleaning the porch or cleaning out the shed. Mowing might be my classic example. These are all activities I can simply do while thinking of mostly other things, then after not-too-long of a time I can stand back and see the results. I can quickly assess whether or not I did a good job and redo parts that are obviously in need of another go at it.
Not a lot of guesswork is necessary; very little, if any, subjective viewpoints. It is what it is.
I have so little of that in my life. As a writer I am naturally dealing with material which can constantly be changed based upon my mood, the time of day, my caffeine intake. Even when I decide I’ve butchered a piece into place the best I can, I rewrite it again, restructure it, dump the intro and move the conclusion. Shred it. Eventually the editor will send the usual note indicating “only small grammatical corrections from this point on,” and I’ll panic realizing that means the journal is probably going to send back the four replacement paragraphs I shot off to them at the last minute. Instead, if the piece comes out in some anthology or another journal under a different title, I’ll include the new addition then, still knowing it will never be close to finished. Some things will never be finished.
This life of mine, too, needs serious rewriting. Just when I think I’m publishable again, I tumble backwards, and one gets tired of asking for help. So we hack away again, knowing (praying?) it will be okay this time, afraid to ask others for input, afraid not to. I glance at my progress with one eye, afraid to see where I screwed up again.
Same when I write. When something does come out in print or online I like to do just one quick take on it to see if they did something strange like add words I’d never use such as “spurious” or take out words I do use, like my name. Then I’m done. To look at the material again is just a way of seeing how differently I’d write it—not necessarily better, just different.
Right after that I mow the lawn. I admire the straight lines of cut grass; grass that was long but is now short. I trim the long grass around the stones and, ouila, done. Nothing to question; it is finished until next time.
However, in the best of days my usually unorthodox approach to everything from work to parenthood to travel and writing has always raised more questions than answers. Part of it is I take a lot of chances; another part is an overwhelming need to experience the passing of time as if I’m taking a dip in the ocean. I want to be absorbed in it, saturated by it. Maybe that’s why I write to begin with; to conjure a counterpoint to the persistence that is time.
Cooking is another task which can be immediately graded. I cook seafood mostly, but I also can make an amazing omelet. I knew a sous chef named Willie at the Hotel Hershey when I worked there half a lifetime ago. Sometimes he would take a weekend off to go to see his family in Puerto Rico, or just stay home, and I’d get to spend that day making omelets to order for the guests. The trick is to let it cook awhile on one side before the flip. I got good and I still love making them. Immediate gratification. Like playing Jenga–I know instantly whether or not I did a good job.
If the temperature is too hot the egg will burn but if it is not hot enough it will not solidify well. The butter first (not spray not margarine not bacon grease butter just butter and if that bothers you go eat oatmeal), followed by any hard ingredients—peppers, shrimp, etc—and after they’ve been thoroughly sautéed, pour in the room temperature, already beaten eggs—three is perfect. Keep pushing the egg toward the middle or sides to let the uncooked egg slide under the cooked part, making for a fluffy, well distributed omelet. When the whole thing seems un-oozy, flip it with a snap of the wrist so it lands in the same spot only upside down. Cover with shredded cheese and then fold in half and let it slide in perfect placement with the half-moon side matching the curve of the plate like two ballet dancers in unison.
This doesn’t work in writing. The second paragraph of this piece, for instance, was originally the beginning. The one starting with, “I love small chores with immediate results.” I changed it a few seconds ago. Writing has no guideline, no recipe, no set ingredients. I wonder now why I didn’t write, “When I mow the lawn I always start near the driveway and work my way to the woods.” Or “I do the larger dishes first when I clean and the silverware last.” Both decent starts. I can also point out now that originally the omelet section was the first paragraph, but I buried it later to back off of the “process” style which can be overbearing and misleading. I also couldn’t decide whether or not to include Willie. I kept putting him in and then leaving him out thinking it irrelevant, but then I decided to leave him in because I thought it a small detail that personifies the example. And yet another part of the writer side of me is constantly saying, “Who gives a shit?” as I write. Writers must constantly strive toward uniqueness without the benefit of example which itself defines contradiction.
Thank God I like eggs.
It would be great if I could go back and rearrange a few of my own paragraphs–I’d move the trip to Austria I didn’t take to the top, and the one I did take to another foreign land I’d delete entirely. The Massachusetts section definitely needed more development, and I’m not really sure how the Arizona got in there. Some cosmic editor would circle that one with a red pen and say, “This is really interesting and I like the Diego blanket-selling character, but it doesn’t fit in the rest of the narrative.”
Too bad we couldn’t have taken all of life’s ingredients out of the cupboard and put them on the counter at the start, decide then what to leave in and what to leave out.
Still, I like not being able to see too far into the work. I like discovering where I’m going only when I get there or maybe slightly before that, and then getting lost again, trying different directions until the landscape reveals itself. Once again I rearranged just now three paragraphs in this piece. You’ll never guess which ones or where they went because by the time I hit publish I’d change them again.
I wish the cosmos could have waited until they got things right before hitting “publish.” This draft of ours, this world, is a very weak draft not nearly living up to the author’s potential.
In any case, I wonder if I live the way I do because I write, or if I write the way I do because of how I live?
I don’t always want to know what’s going to happen. Maybe what I’ve been working on for all these years will turn out to have a happy ending; or maybe some tragedy will strike and I’ll need to write myself out of a corner and make some alternative escape from the monotony of a three-decade-old narrative. Whatever. I just know that in the end, the old axiom, “Watch pot never boils,” is not true. Of course it will boil. Einstein’s theories aside, the pot on the heat is going to boil. It is one of the few predictable aspects of life we can count on. Time is selfish that way. Not one fat second will ever lose an once on my account.
And no matter how many ways I approach it in the years I have left, I am never going to be finished with this life I’ve been writing. There are just too many ways to rewrite it; and far too many people already are too accepting of their first draft. I’m simply not, not because I can be so much better than this–though I am sure that is true. But because this simply doesn’t read well at all.
I need a good copyeditor.
“I’ve been working on a rewrite, that’s right. Gonna change the ending.”