My neighbour’s foxgloves are late blooming this Spring. ‘I don’t think they’re going to flower at all,’ she told me two weeks ago. She was seriously thinking of pulling them out: I cautioned her to wait. Look at them now; a cascade of bells on long-reaching stems, their little spotted tongues welcoming the sun. How quickly things change…if we have the patience to wait…
My husband tells me I’m impetuous: I tell him it takes one to know one. But in a long-term partnership we do learn from each other–perhaps we’re brought together for that very purpose. From him I’ve learned to sleep on important decisions. To leave the difficult email for a day or two. To let things settle before rushing in.
This week I came across an essay by Charlotte Wood that made me think about writing and patience. Charlotte considers the qualities she has found most important in the process of editing, both by herself and in working with an editor. She decides on four particular qualities: generosity, humility, imaginative courage, and the breath of life.
Each of these qualities I found helpful, sometimes inspiring, always reassuring. But it is the quality of humility that I link with patience.
Charlotte suggests the humble task of line editing can improve a book beyond belief. At first I thought she meant an edit of spelling, punctuation, etc, but she is referring to what I call The Forensic Edit, something I discovered when completing my first novel.
I divided every chapter into scenes and then went through every word of every sentence of every paragraph of every scene. I asked myself the big questions like: What is this scene doing? Why is it here? Is it developing action, character, plot? Is it conveying the feeling I want it to convey for this or these characters? Is it working as well as it could? If not, why not?
Often I discovered that I could say in one sentence what had taken three. Often I had too many images competing with each other. Often I needed stronger metaphors. Often I cut back on the flowery phrase and made my writing more direct.
But perhaps most importantly, I was so up close and personal that I could sense when a scene wasn’t working. Why? I had to ask myself. And there was no hiding; my forensic edit called for total honesty.
Often I discovered that I hadn’t gone deep enough with the character’s feelings. And then I had to confront the painful truth that I was fudging because I didn’t know myself. But thrill of thrill, when I did the deep work, I often needed only one sentence to show that feeling and make the whole scene come together.
I loved that final stage of writing/editing. I felt like an eagle hovering over my manuscript with a view of the whole book, the gardens, paths and byways, the grand sweeps and tiny creatures, every hidden, intricate surface that I had created. At the same time, I was inside every foxglove flower examining its secret spots and patterns, structures and colours.
Has this learning helped with my new novel? For the moment, I’m in a very different place. As Charlotte so beautifully puts it:
“…the artist…is always seeking something new, groping for something just out of reach. What has satisfied in the past will do so no longer. And so…I found myself plummeting into darkness once more, into the inchoate, gloomy world of an unformed novel I did not know how to write. What I learned…no longer helped or interested me, as another smudgy, misshapen idea began to form, and crumble, and form again, and dissolve and slowly build again.”
Yes, I’m struggling with the ever-changing, messy dream of the new novel. And remembering the final stage with more than a little longing, the satisfaction of the forensic edit, my nose in the foxglove flowers…