Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 11th, 2011

“Previously, on Dante’s Inferno…”

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There’s an amusing tradition, at least as old as Boccaccio, that Dante wrote the first seven cantos of the Inferno before his exile from Florence, and then took up the story again with Canto VIII, after a gap of months or years in the writing process. To mark the resumption of his work, Dante opens the canto with the words Io dico, seguitando: “I say, continuing…” The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it’s as good an illustration as I know for the fact that long stretches of inactivity may interrupt a writer’s work on a novel, or any long writing project, but that the final result needs to look as continuous as possible. (Unless, of course, you’re aiming for an impression of discontinuity, which may also be an illusion.)

Gaps can occur in the writing process for all sorts of reasons. Usually, it’s because other obligations of life or work have gotten in the way. Sometimes it’s because you feel inspiration flagging and decide to work on another project for a while instead. Or, most frighteningly, it’s because you’ve hit a wall, don’t know where to go with the story, and feel compelled to set it aside for a long time, possibly forever. (John Gardner was unable to work on one of his novels for months because he couldn’t decide if a certain character would accept a drink offered to her at a cocktail party.) And whatever the reason, when you do go back to work, you’ll often find that it’s hard to pick up again precisely where you left off.

This last problem is one that I’ve often encountered, simply because of the way I approach long writing projects. As I’ve said before, I tend to outline in great detail, but I also like being surprised by the story, and it’s hard to reconcile these two impulses. The only solution I’ve found, which has worked well enough for me so far, has been to outline the novel in installments: I’ll put together a detailed outline for Part I, then write that section of the novel, with only a vague sense of what happens in Part II. Then, once I’ve finished the first section, I’ll repeat the process for the next part. This way, I have the structure I need for each day’s work, but I’ve also retained the possibility of surprise, even if it means going back and heavily revising what I’ve written before.

But how do you pick up the thread of a story after taking such a long time off? In my experience, it helps to do what Dante did, or is alleged to have done: write a page or two tacitly acknowledging that you’re returning to the story after a long absence—a transitional scene, a long description, even a recapitulation of what has happened so far—as long as you revise it into invisibility in a subsequent draft. After all, this is only an extreme version of what happens every day when you’re writing a first draft, much of which consists of transitional material that you need to ease yourself into and out of the fictional dream. Nearly all of this stuff, especially at the beginning and end of each scene, will need to be cut. Which is fine. Nobody will ever see it but you. And once its purpose is served, like a military bridge, it can be blown to smithereens. The important thing, the only thing, is to get to the other side.

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2011 at 9:52 am

Quote of the Day

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Ralph Richardson, whom I saw give at least three great performances, in theater and film, used a completely auditory, musical system. During rehearsals of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he asked a simple question. Forty-five minutes later I finished my answer. (I talk a lot.) Ralph paused a moment and then sonorously said, “I see what you mean, dear boy: a little more cello, a little less flute.”

Sidney Lumet, Making Movies

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2011 at 8:06 am

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