Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Depths and Shallows

I've been thinking about writing as water. Or swimming. Or something.

In this mental picture, the surface is where writing interfaces with the world--maybe publication, maybe beta readers, maybe a trusted editor. Someone other than the writer.

Deep water is where ideas lurk and grow. It's where the writer opens herself to recording what is actually happening, as opposed to what she might wish were happening. Where she makes connections among disparate currents, where she finds what she's afraid of and works it into the drafts. Over time, drafts edge closer to the surface.

For the past couple of years, I've been working nearer the surface, with words I first wrote 20 years ago. How do they still make sense to me, if they do--or do they make sense in a different way? How do they resonate emotionally today? What feelings have I managed to relinquish through the years, and what have I come to understand that lets me feel these events differently?

To make these connections, I do find it helpful to hang around in slightly deeper water--but the goal is always to bring these words to the surface to interact with other words there. Sometimes the words from the deeper layers fill in gaps that didn't exist back then; sometimes they are clearer labels for the confused tangled mess of my notes.

And of course I hurry the process more than I should. Nearly always I imagine a first (or fourth) draft to be "ready" and I drag it to the surface. Sometimes those drafts really are publishable, but often they don't answer the "so what?"-type questions thoroughly. Giving a draft more time, or dropping underwater to play for a while, lets me make the work more rich and satisfying.

In both fiction and nonfiction--the novel on its umpteenth draft, the essay collection that's finally ready for prime time--I've been revising, revising, revising and then polishing before going back for another revision. For years.

It's been a long time since I let myself sink into deep water with no purpose other than to watch the play of light and shadow. My recent vacation gave me that chance. And yes, interesting things bubble and flow down there.

Meanwhile, I have more work to do near the surface, which is also rewarding. Especially knowing that the water is still deep, with fascinations that nurture me.