For the past eight months, I’ve been diligently working at the first draft of Ellen, the working title of the current novel I’m writing. Back in January, I planned to spend one month reading and organizing the notes I’ve been collecting for years, and then to write a chapter a month.
On February first, I was still on schedule, but each chapter has taken not one, but two months, to write. I accepted that. I was writing. I was writing slowly, but I was also writing well: funny, poignant, biting and necessary scenes. By the time I started Chapter Four, however, I suspected that as good as my words were, they weren’t the right ones. And by the time I reached Chapter Five, I knew I’d taken a wrong turn. So I printed what I had and read it through.
What I’d written was good – but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. Ellen is about a middle-aged woman, and what I’d written was the story of my character’s childhood and adolescence – right up to her graduation from college. After reading the typescript through, I saw clearly what I had to do: keep the first two pages, and delete the other 163.
And yet, as difficult as it is to put those pages aside, I know it’s the right thing to do. In fact, my discipline of writing short for the radio has taught me the importance of leaving out everything that doesn’t move the story along. And in this instance, I know I’m right.
I also know that just because I’m not going to use what’s taken me months to write doesn’t mean I’ve been wasting my time. All the biographical information I’ve learned about my character will come in handy as I write forward. Some of the scenes, in fact, may appear later, as flashbacks. Nothing is wasted, even those scenes that never make it into the book.
Of course a part of me wishes I could write in a more straightforward manner, from beginning to end with no detours. But that’s not how I work. I’ve always written slowly and long, and then rewritten with an eye for excising everything that doesn’t belong. For me, the rough draft is about finding the raw material, and the fun is all about chiseling it into shape.
Recognizing and accepting my own process certainty soothes any discomfort of finding myself on page two after nine months of hard work; as sure as I am that I’m doing the right thing, deleting three quarters of a year’s work isn’t easy, so after I push “Delete,” I’m leaving my desk for a well-earned day off.
Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com