“Writing is not a bundle of skills. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and skills inevitably mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them.”—Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Mark Turner and Francis-Noel Thomas
For such an intense period in the past four years of crafting a memoir have I written, rewritten, pondered, read books, cut, restructured, taken classes, and reread my work that there are periods, like right now, when I don’t know a thing about writing. I don’t know what I know—or what I ever thought I knew. Perhaps this comes from trying to understand writing in terms of craft—and while craft is vital to art, it’s secondary, a conduit. Which begs the craft question that forever devils me: What works and how does one do it?
Adrift, I seize on theorists who make sense and read the writers on my blogroll with amazed delight—so funny, so deft—wishing I could at least blog as seemingly effortlessly, as gracefully.
Recently I felt the struggle, inspiringly if not directly helpfully, in a physical sense: away from this intense keyboard work for two weeks, traveling in May with my son through Germany, Austria, Italy, and Denmark, I felt like a potter missing his sticky ball of clay. I yearned to thrust my hands into the book as if it were physical. And I had that mental image of the nature of this work so powerfully that I almost threw my tensed hands into the air and grappled with my invisible but palpable opponent.
Maybe I did. I felt as if I were in withdrawal from slamming around something material but unformed, instead of from manipulating immaterial symbols. My son says I spoke strangely at times, issuing gnomic bulletins apropos of nothing, though our memories of specific incidents are at variance, and I recall my statements as responses to his own. He’s also a writer, at work on a novel.
Just before leaving on my trip I’d realized that my recent Chapter One rewrite must be recast yet again. I’d taken a mighty swing and missed, again. Another rewrite will affect the first four to six chapters. I’m on Chapter Five, and will keep going and refuse to loop back just yet. A writer who helped me see the issue with Chapter One urged me to outline all my chapters, from memory, during my trek. I told her I couldn’t do it, which surprised her. Which depressed me. But I still resisted the very idea of trying.
I’m want to take my inability as a difference between writers, not as evidence of my worthlessness. I admire her ability to outline her chapters freehand, but though I have outlined my book’s timeline and its turning points, my most helpful outlining always seems to come after I’ve written. And the way I am already proceeding seems to be working, mostly. One of these days perhaps I will break down my game, start over from scratch, the way Tiger Woods supposedly rebuilt his golf game after he already was great. But I doubt it. I don’t have this game down, and it appears I never will.
Trans-Atlantic flights and airline snafus and recuperation time in our walkup pensione in Florence did allow much time for reading on this journey. At the start, United Airlines couldn’t send me to my trans-Atlantic departure point of Dulles because of a mechanical problem, so United put me on an Air Canada flight to Toronto. From there, Luftansa would take me to Copenhagen. But in Toronto, scowling Luftansa functionaries at the gate, to which I’d raced like a crazed donkey, told me United hadn’t “protected” my seat. They bumped me and told me to talk to United, which denied culpability. Anyway, the plane was gone and now I was in Air Canada’s hands. I was forced to spend the night. None of the three airlines involved in buying and selling me among themselves could tell me where my luggage was. I’d fallen between the system’s huge cracks, and it became apparent that airline employees understand only their tiny piece—if that—of their business. The eventual consensus among Air Canada’s clerks, the most helpful and kindest of the lot, was that my bag had gone on to Copenhagen with Luftansa. (In the fullness of time, that proved to be the case.)
Meanwhile I had my carry-on, so was able the next day, sitting for twelve hours in the lobby of a Marriott attached to the terminal, to finish the novel Shiloh by Shelby Foote and then to read it again; it is cleanly written, well-told from different characters’ points of view, and conveys viscerally the Civil War’s mud, boredom, and terrifying combat. In Italy, I reread two favorite memoirs, RFD by Charles Allen Smart and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. I was more critical of the former, a monologue with brilliant flashes, but This Boy’s Life remained spare and perfect, and impressive for Wolff’s honest portrayal of his flawed adolescent self. I was more accepting of his two major flashforwards, the second of which, in wrapping up the book by telling what happens to the kid, I had felt on my first reading was an artless move he never would have made in his artistic fiction.
In Copenhagen and returning, I read A Farewell to Arms, which I’d bought for my son in the futuristic Frankfurt airport; I’d first read it when I was his age, though over the years I’ve dipped into its perfect first chapter, two pages of incantatory and heartbreakingly beautiful landscape-and-setting prose. But Ernest Hemingway’s cloying male-female dialogue distressed me—it’s possible to get that his characters are shattered by a malevolent world and still want to strangle them for their brittle, willfully unreflective stiff-upper-lipped-ness—they seemed, this time, nauseatingly sentimental creations—not to mention their annoying adverb-heavy speech. As a tonic, I googled, downloaded, and reread “In Another Country,” Hemingway’s perfect short story that’s also set in Italy during the war, perhaps an outtake from the novel.
Next to writing itself, reading during a writing project is the most helpful activity for writers because they notice things they otherwise wouldn’t—there, there’s something I know about writing after all. I saw more in the books I read because I’d been working hard, making sentences and scenes. Not always big things, mind you. But even how someone would or wouldn’t use a comma would stop me.
[See also “Between Self and Story.”]