Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Solving Problems

Q: How is assembled-at-home furniture like a manuscript?

Some ten years after putting together our "wardrobe" (a credenza from an office supply store), my husband looked at it and said, "Why don't those doors latch?"

I've been wondering for years without caring enough to find out. My husband, however, took the doors off, took the hardware off them, got out a measuring tape, and started puzzling over what he found.

At one point he called me into the bedroom and pointed at the insides of the doors. "Does this make sense to you? The pre-drilled holes show the latch goes here, like this, but how would that work? Why would the latch slide up, instead of sideways in front of this thing here? They must have drilled it wrong at the factory."

I was working on something else at the time, so I shrugged and said, "Not sure. Are you going to re-drill it?"

"I guess. That's the only thing that makes sense," he said.

I disappeared into my other project. Two hours later, he came into one of the (many, far too many) rooms where I've spread papers across a horizontal surface, the better to frown at them.

"So, I dropped a screw and figured out the door latch. The bottom surface of a shelf has a slot that holds the latch. I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't dropped that screw. So all I have to do is put the doors back on and make sure they're level, and the latch will slide up into the slot."

"Huh," I said. And thought of the novel I'm revising.

Not because I wasn't paying attention--because this novel I'm revising is like that wardrobe. I think. Maybe. I haven't been working on it ten years (yet) (close, though).  I'm revising the first full draft, but it had been through many versions along the way. Yet revising it isn't going quite the way I thought it would.

When you study literature, you develop skill at taking writing apart. When you study and work as an editor for years, you develop skill at clarifying thoughts--addressing everything from basic grammar and punctuation to word choice to organization and motivation. Neither is like writing, which is part of what makes writing fun--it's a stretch, it's organic/generative/creative blah blah et cetera.

I did those literature/editorial things for years before the creative writing thing. Recently, I've edited both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, for publishers and for individual writers. The experiences have been both fun and finite. So I thought revising this novel, once I had a full draft, would be like that: you get the thing, you point out the issues, you give it back.

Ha. Is revising fun? Yes. Finite? I hope so. The thing is, I'm responsible for fixing those issues. I keep thinking, "Why would this be like this? It should be like that." Then I change it. Then I put away the laundry or wash dishes or drive to town to run errands or hit the treadmill--and drop a screw. I see how "this" instead of "that" could work after all.

Then I have a choice, and here's where I keep hoping for finite: if "this" is better than "that," what else changes when I pick "this"? And what of those things is better than the options that come from "that," and which of the options from "that" is better? What am I giving up, what am I gaining? Plus each thing that changes could be its own "this"/"that" choice.

It's multiverses--and horizontal surfaces and papers to frown at--all the way down, y'all.

Q: How is assembled-at-home furniture like a manuscript?
A: Sometimes the initial design really does make sense. And sometimes it doesn't. And it's up to the assembler to figure that out.