Writing Against Yourself

I have no clue who this is, but it’s how I feel sometimes. Thanks for letting me dweeb-out about process on The Writing Life Blog these past few weeks…

I shifted gears this week in my work on the novel and it’s presenting an interesting challenge. While I’m still practicing inspiration through imitation of structure, I’ve moved on from the introductory pages of the American couple in the novel. My writing about Nathan in the opening chapters flowed easily. I have known about this character for about a year and, while the short story he first appeared in takes place after his two tours, I somehow felt I knew what to do with him in this novel even though it opens in Afghanistan at the close of his first tour. I could move him around on the page with confidence because, all along, I knew where he was going to end up. In fact, knowing where he’s going to end up gave each move I made him make in the present moment that much more narrative power and relevance.

Tuesday night, I began work on the opening pages of Chapter 5, where the Afghan couple first makes their appearance. By contrast, writing about them hasn’t flowed as nicely. Foolishly, I thought that because the short story this couple first appeared in as well as the first 60 pages of an earlier draft of the novel I began this summer both take place in the same time period, writing their debut into this version of the opening chapters might be easier. Wait. That was a confusing sentence. But I think you know what I mean, and if you do, it’s also worth knowing that I was wrong. It isn’t easier.

Why not? I’ve already written scenes of the wife Aaseya waiting for her husband to return from work. I’ve already dealt with the logistics of her husband Rahim’s sketchy employment as middleman for the Taliban. So why was bringing them to life in this current manifestation so much more difficult? Because I was writing against myself, that’s why. Each time I set out to compose my next sentence, I have to un-tether it from the echoes of all the sentences I have written before–some of them about these same characters going through the same motions at the same juncture in their lives. It makes it difficult to decipher what’s a good idea and what’s lazy and what’s an unwillingness to “kill your darlings.” Is such-and-such sentence I wrote in the short story version the best sentence to use to describe Aaseya’s state of mind? Or is the one in this summer’s novel opening better? What if I like them both–can I fuse them? What if neither is good enough but I’m feeling tired and persuade myself to keep something that should otherwise be re-imagined?

There’s only one way to find out, of course, and that is to try. Tuesday night I brainstormed and scribbled (by hand) notes for about two hours. This morning I gave it another two hours with the roughly 1000 words I had drafted the night before and, needless to say, the waters were choppy. Sure, I kept some of my ideas and cut and pasted a few lines from previous drafts, but my gauges for intuitive authenticity were all out of whack. This slowed me down and had me re-working single paragraphs for up to twenty minutes or more. And they’re still not done…

All of which is not to complain, by any means. I’m finally moving on this novel and that, however slow, is more than the not-moving that went on for my first 2 months back home. I can officially say this Airstream is a living, breathing, writing studio. My mind buzzes in here when I write. I slip easily into the mode I need to be in and rarely struggle with maintaining boundaries (no Internet, no stopping too soon). If I can ride this wave through winter, it will be a very good thing indeed.

Local readers: Don’t forget! I have a public reading in Asheville THIS FRIDAY at Downtown Books & News. Come one, come all! Read about it here.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.