Monday, January 24, 2011

Your Form is Showing, or Is It?

Deciding to plunge forward on a frustrating piece is one of the most difficult, and most common, decisions a writer must make. If a character isn’t cooperating, if a POV isn’t functioning, if there’s that intangible something telling you that the piece is suffering, it can be hard to convince yourself to press on. After all, no one’s read the thing – no one necessarily knows you’re working on it (with the exception of your writers group, or your MFA crew). So why should you press on?

Because sometimes the story is there. It might just need a different form. (No one said this stuff was easy.)

Recently I ‘tabled’ a novel that I was working on. My group had read the book, commented on it, and put in a lot of time and work to make sure that I was on the right track. I wasn’t. The piece needed some hefty reevaluation. A lot of soul searching and struggling and thinking went into my decision: it’s not tabled, it’s just getting a new form: a short story.

Then I had my group read a bunch of older short stories that I wanted to ‘make work’. (See how hard I work them?) Mary said one of the stories would work better as a long poem. I hadn’t thought of it myself – but it made perfect sense when I pondered for a bit. It solved a bunch of my issues.

So imagine my happiness when I discovered that Woolf suffered from similar doubts/problems/reevaluations of form:

“But how to pull it together, how to comport it – press it into one – I do not know; nor can I guess the end – it might be a gigantic conversation. The interludes are very difficult, yet I think essential; so as to bridge and also to give a background – the sea, insensitive nature – I don’t know.”
~Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary, struggling to create the form for The Waves.

The book that Woolf is referring to in that passage, The Waves, is a novel (so she knew that accurately right off), but it is a novel on crack.

I don’t mean this in a bad way at all. In fact, I think that it’s one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. The story is told entirely in alternating dialogues (though it’s probably more accurate to call them monologues) that undulate like the waves of the ocean. The interludes Woolf refers to in her diary are represented in the final product. But note that, at this point in the creation of the piece, she mentions that it “might be a gigantic conversation.”

A gigantic conversation is what it turned into…

meaning that it didn’t start that way.

Meaning that she worked her way into the form. It took her a couple years to finish this book.

A lot of times writers talk about ‘revision’ as ‘editing’. NO NO NO! Editing is adjusting commas and periods. Revision means that (sometimes) you have to rethink the way the Whole Thing is designed. Maybe the great novel is a short story, maybe the short story is a poem, maybe the novel isn’t a narrative – maybe it’s a conversation. Which means that you might have to start over from the beginning. (No one said this stuff was easy.)

Like I said, The Waves is one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. It’s gorgeous. It’s difficult.

But it’s soooo worth the work that Woolf put in. It's beautiful.


  1. This is very brave of you to consent to reshuffle all your writing.

  2. You've got me thinking. And you know how dangerous that can be.

  3. As writers, we must both be brave and think! Haha!


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