“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” –Saul Bellow, Nobel Price in Literature 1976.
I counter that quote with a tale/myth from the life of James Joyce: One day he managed to write seven words, and while that was good for him, at least, he didn’t know what order they went in.
We have all felt humbled by the juxtaposition of elation and frustration when it comes to writing and editing. Some days I am lucky if I even get seven words down. Though since I wrote this post originally, two years ago, much has changed. I could go for days only scratching out a sentence or two, but since I shifted my focus to the abstract flash fiction I have been writing of late, I am now writing more prolifically then I used to, sometimes to the tune of two or three flash pieces a day. This has helped me immensely during the revision/editing process of my novella length pieces.
Even so, I still love waking up in the middle of the night with what I call the afterburst, and by that I mean when my mind has been so consumed with a bit of narrative or a scene I just wrote during the day that a brilliant burst of clarity comes to me during my sleep. This happens often for me, and while I normally never touch the odd bits and pieces of prose or poetry that are conceived in that state, it doesn’t mean I should write in a perpetual fugue state.
Dreaming is where vision is given life. Editing is where the alchemy happens.
The editor’s desk is the dank fume-laden laboratory where we can take all our knowledge of literary technique and transform those magnificent tidbits of virtual nuance and metaphor into something cohesive. It’s where we transform the story into truth. For example, I was recently editing my novella And Death Dreamt Us All, and something just didn’t feel right to me. I had hit a wall in the first chapter. So I thought on it, reworked it, added more, rearranged it … etc, ad nausea, and still – it didn’t feel right. Then later that evening, frustrated beyond reason, I was watching the movie Girl with the Pearl Earring, which is about one of my favorite painters Johannes Vermeer, and the scene in particular had to do with the painting above. In the original painting, according to the movie, there was a chair in front of the woman. In the movie, the maid subsequently moved the chair out of the scene. He later repainted the scene with the chair removed. When Vermeer asked her why she had moved it, she said, “The woman looked trapped.” In that moment, something hit my subconscious, and I realized, yet again, what wasn’t right about my start: My intent was trapped behind unnecessary character monologue that would work better later in the book, after something actually happened, and so I cut and then rearranged the chapters before and after. Now it reads right, to me: The idea I wanted to hit the readers with is more subtle. Left for a quieter moment, my intent has become clearer. So in my opinion, the true brilliance of a story, any story, seems to originate from the subconscious mind or the dream state, where creativity lives unbound, but when we edit, we need to be consciously aware of our intent. Vermeer was painting from the subconscious emotion he felt, but his maid, by her very nature, was able to see the clutter and the apparent misplacement of the details.
Cheryl Anne Gardner