Last weekend I had a great time at the AIW conference, where I was on a panel with David Taylor, Paula Whyman, and Mary Kay Zuravleff. We started off talking about editorial strategies– how to gain a sense of perspective about your own work– but in the Q and A, the topic of abandonment kept coming up. How do you know when it’s time to let a piece go? What if you let it go and when you go back to it you don’t remember what you’re doing?
I’ve had these kinds of fears before– sometimes on the bus, after having a moment of inspiration, realizing I don’t have a pen, and fearing the most brilliant paragraph I’ve ever written is gone forever*, sometimes when returning to an unfinished first draft and realizing I no longer remember what my original plan was. I’ve had a few of those moments recently, and I’d like to have a stern chat with six-months-ago-me about a few seriously unintelligible editorial notes she left in my novel draft.
But, while I could be wrong, and the best of my writing could be lost forever to the 38B bus, it seems to me that the really important things in your work have a way of showing up when they need to, however long it’s been since you’ve seen the piece. If you don’t remember something six months later, and it doesn’t end up in the final work, that’s probably OK. It doesn’t bode well for the timeless brilliance of the paragraph or plot turn you had planned if even you forgot it. As much as I believe in work, I also believe that the best of your writing usually happens through a process that you can’t articulate and pin down until after the fact, if at all.
For example, Snakes, a story in my collection, takes place in Tallahassee, FL. Until recently, I thought Tallahassee was the one place in my book I had never actually been. My editor pointed out that an earlier draft of the story lacked a concrete sense of location. I tried to think of a place that would serve both the indoor and outdoor landscapes of the story—essentially, a place with swamps, mansions, and country clubs. I picked Tallahassee out of what I thought was sheer calculation, read some guidebooks, toured it with Google maps, and was pleased with how well its actual landscape mapped on to and enlivened the fictional landscape of the existing story. (Which I’m not going to say too much more about, because you’re going to read it, aren’t you? This blog post is now batting its eyelashes at you.)
More than a year later, I went to visit my father to drop off a galley of the collection. My stepmother and her mother were there, looking at the book, and while flipping through the pages, they asked if I’d ever been to Tallahassee. I said no, and was about to brag about my writerly hard work and research, when my father interrupted to say that I had been to Tallahassee, I just didn’t remember. When I was four, we drove down to Georgia for a family reunion, and then went to Disney world for a day afterwards. At some point that trip we went swimming in a swamp that turned out to be the home of numerous alligators. My father, when he realized this, pulled us quickly out of the water, but not quickly enough for my mother, who was horrified when she heard about it later**. I’d always thought that swamp was in Georgia, but apparently it was in Tallahassee, the place I chose to set a story that’s all about the danger of families and the things that might live in swamp water.
Your work knows what it’s doing. You don’t always have to.
*Sometimes I actually do write the paragraph in lipstick on the back of my hand, then promptly forget I’ve done so, smudge it, and lose it forever anyway. Sigh. At least doing strange things on the bus keeps strangers from talking to you.
** Not only did my father get us away from the alligators, would you all check out the above photo and note the inflatable swimmies, and that the hairbow that is sort of color coordinated to match the swimsuit? Good looking out Daddy. Happy Father’s Day.