Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The inconceivable figure

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Whenever I’m working on a project longer than a short story, there comes a point where something strange happens: I find that I’m suddenly writing it in my head all the time. And it tends to occur at a very specific stage in the process. It’s after I’ve written a complete rough draft, but before I’m totally happy with it, and only once I’ve done enough cutting to bring it down considerably from its initial length. The first assembly of any book is too large to hold in my brain all at once, and I tend to see it as a collection of individual pieces that I’ve researched, outlined, and revised separately, bound loosely together by the plan that I had at the beginning. Cutting it down, as I’ve said before, brings all these parts closer together, which leads to new resonances and connections, but it also allows me to finally grasp its shape as a whole. It’s as if my mind has a limited amount of storage space, and a file has to be under a certain size to fit. (In Behind the Seen, which recounts the editing of the film Cold Mountain, Charles Koppelman speaks of the turning point that comes when the rough cut is short enough to be viewed as a single sequence in Final Cut Pro, rather than split into two parts.) Once that threshold is reached, it feels as if a switch has been flipped, and I can mentally edit, write, and rearrange large sections without being at my desk. Even more useful is the fact that if a phrase or sentence occurs to me when I’m washing the dishes, I can usually think of a place to put it, assuming that I remember to write it down. Eventually, it becomes continuous, like a program running in the background, to the point where I have trouble turning it off when I go to bed at night.

And this only happens, at least in my experience, when I’ve finished the entire manuscript, which is a good argument in itself for trying to get it all down on paper as soon as possible. A draft acts like a kind of magnet that draws the iron filings of your stray thoughts and arranges them in a pattern, or like a massive set of pigeonholes in which items can be filed for later use. Without the draft, which exerts a gravitational pull of its own, those ideas have a way of just drifting off into space. (That’s three different analogies in a row, but they all seem right to me.) As I’ve stated elsewhere, there are a lot of reasons for wanting a complete draft as early in the process as you can. A line on the last page can help you solve a problem on the first, and you’re more likely to end up with something publishable if you rough out the whole thing first as a crude sketch and then revise it, instead of obsessing over a tiny slice of the beginning. But the way in which it provides you with a place to organize your passing thoughts may be the most compelling argument of all. There’s a limit to how long you can sit at your desk each day—my own upper bound seems to be about three or four hours. The rest of that time, including sleep, goes unused, even though you’re most likely to come up with useful insights when you’re doing something else. Having a finished draft opens up the remaining five-sixths of your life for productive thought, which feels like a huge practical advantage. I’ve often speculated as to why so many good ideas seem to come in the shower or on the bus, but it may simply be that such moments account numerically for the bulk of our time, and the existence of the draft is what activates those otherwise wasted hours.

This state is also enormously pleasurable. When we speak of the joys of revising, we’re often talking about the mechanical process of looking at an existing sentence and tinkering with it until it reads better. That can be a significant source of satisfaction, but I think that the real joy comes from studying the project as a whole in your head, as a sort of hyperobject that has suddenly become comprehensible. There’s a line from Jorge Luis Borges that I’ve quoted here before: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” Writing a book is the closest most of us will ever get to seeing that “inconceivable figure,” and that heightened sense of awareness is only temporary. For me, it seems to last for a few months, after I’ve finished the first round of cuts and before I’ve delivered the final version. (If you don’t have a deadline, this phase can drag on indefinitely, and the desire to extend it partially explains why some authors can work on a novel for decades. Given the choice, many writers would prefer not to wake up from that dream, which intensifies their experience of the world until everything seems relevant. It’s a wonderful feeling, but you also have to be ready to give it up if you ever want to see your words in print.) After the book is finished, the sensation fades, and for good reason—it would be painful to feel so attuned to a project that has become effectively unchangeable. You could even argue that the amnesia that sets in shortly after a book is delivered is a survival mechanism that prevents writers from breaking under the tension between the changes that they’d still like to make and the fixed nature of the work on the page.

This also leads to another apparent contradiction, which is that a writer is most likely to be making countless small changes at the exact moment when the work is ready to enter the world for the first time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because if all goes well, a full draft of my book Astounding will be going out to readers for comments later today. I’m pretty happy with my manuscript, which is more or less where it needs to be, since it isn’t due at my publisher for another four months—and I deliberately gave myself an earlier deadline, in part to extend the fertile period that I’ve discussed above. Even as I format the printed version of the file, though, I find that I’m making numerous edits, some small, some significant. This might imply that the draft isn’t ready, but on a deeper level, it indicates that it’s going out at just the right time, or so I try to tell myself. Ideally, you want to solicit notes after the draft can stand on its own, but before you’ve become psychologically attached to it. You want it to be alive, malleable, and amenable to cuts and changes, and the longer you put it off, the more painful any revisions become. Inevitably, this means that it goes out right when you’re likely to see dozens of things that need to be fixed, which is how you know, paradoxically, that it’s time to let it go. This is why the final days of any project have a way of feeling like a mad scramble, no matter how protracted the process has been. In Behind the Seen, we witness director Anthony Minghella and editor Walter Murch making substantial edits to Cold Mountain on the very last night of postproduction. Minghella says: “Enormous changes at the last minute.” And Murch replies: “Our specialty.”

Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2017 at 9:06 am

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