Monday, June 25, 2012

The Big Picture

Last year, I wrote a novel. Initially, I started writing it to avoid writing more difficult things. I wrote it as a leisure activity, on a lark. Actually, it started out as a novella. No, that’s not right either. It began as a short story. To be more accurate, it started as a list of questions. Really, its genesis was in just one question: What would you make of my mother, Walt Whitman?

I wasn’t sure what this question meant—or who was asking it—but then other questions came to me, and I wrote them down: Would you eat at McDonald’s, Walt Whitman? What would you think of plagiarism, Walt Whitman? If you got into a duel with Alexander Pushkin, who would win, Walt Whitman? Can you help me fix this lawnmower, Walt Whitman?

As I began writing the answers to these questions, my piece quickly ballooned from a short story into a novella. Then it grew long enough to earn the moniker “novel.” I never would have set out to write a novel on a lark, but that’s what ended up happening. I thought of it as my silly novel. It was my respite from working on Hard Writing.

Each of the questions ended up framing a chapter. I now have twenty-eight sets of questions—with answers—that make up the draft of my novel. If you asked me what my novel was about, I’d say Walt Whitman. I might also say it is narrated by a twenty-seven-year-old Russian-American doctoral student whose obsession with Walt Whitman has led her to talk to him in her head. (And no, I am decidedly not the narrator. This is a work of fiction. I hardly ever talk to Walt Whitman.)  

As I wrote, I kept going back and making additions. My work was a slow accretion of detail. I added the best friend with the autistic son, the dead father (who started out being a chemist but is now an astrophysicist), the annoying and creepy grad student who has a morbid interest in phrenology, the evangelical midwife from western Iowa who breaks the law to assist with homebirths in Nebraska. So I threw all of this in—and a bunch of other things—and then I put the manuscript away for awhile. I turned to tackling the Hard Writing.

But I kept thinking about my silly novel, about how I might improve it. I thought about it so much I decided maybe it wasn’t silly after all. Maybe it was more than a lark. Maybe it started out silly and lark-like, but maybe I could make it more than that. So I asked my friend Amanda to read it.

After ruminating over all of Amanda’s insightful comments, I see how the novel is still, at some points, an accretion of detail. I see how all the separate, discrete pieces I shimmied into place don’t make a fully harmonious whole. A novel is not just a layering of detail, a depositing of sediment; there needs to be a unity, a semblance of a complete world.

It’s time for stepping back and seeing the whole book, the parts that haven’t meshed, the parts that aren’t resolved, the parts that just don’t fit. It’s time for looking at the macro level, not the micro level. I need to see not individual words, not paragraphs, not even chapters, but the pattern they create together. I need to see the big picture. And so with Amanda’s comments, with my own scrawled notes, with Walt Whitman in my heart, with a color-coded chart, I set to work.

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