Unpacking Prose

“…I asked novelists…what it felt like when they went into a novel. None of them wanted to know what I meant by into.” Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

One of the unnamed novelists who were asked this question said going into a novel was “like being in a completely dark room, feeling her way: she had to rearrange the furniture in the dark, and when it was all arranged the light would come on.”

I would describe my experience a little bit differently. Going into a novel is like unpacking boxes that fill every room of a house. You really don’t know what you have until all the boxes are unpacked, and then you still have a mess to wade through to figure out what to do with all the stuff that was inside them. So many, many bits and pieces everywhere! That mess—that voluminous clutter—is akin to darkness as far as I’m concerned. It’s blinding.

I wouldn’t have used this metaphor before this year, when I made a brutal revision to a 20-year-old manuscript, a manuscript I’d already “revised” many times before. I’ve read and heard the same advice as you: Don’t edit until you have a complete first draft, but I’ve never worked that way and probably never will. Back to the unpacking metaphor. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for me to unpack a whole houseful of boxes willy-nilly and not do a little sorting and arranging before they were all emptied.

To give you an idea what I’m talking about, I’m on Revision 4 of this post—a post!—and I haven’t even unpacked all my thoughts about it.

What to do?

Cutting a fifth of extraneous prose from that manuscript—my first novel—and extensively rewriting what remained made a believer out of me: I have to change my writerly ways. Some way. Somehow. Given my temperament and habits, it isn’t likely I’ll unpack all the prose and dispose of the boxes before taking a look at and organizing what I have so far. But I have to make peace with the fact that I cannot begin to arrange the narrative—or even see the story—until everything I have in me is on the page. Any arranging prior to that is suspect, probably wasted, and possibly damaging to the integrity of the novel.

I cannot permit myself to keep believing I’ve arranged the entire house when I’ve only arranged rooms, one after another. Such compartmentalization creates cognitive dissonance in the novel. It just doesn’t work. The whole must be considered before any meaningful arranging can begin.

What do I mean by the whole? Well, what the novel’s about for one thing. The themes that must be brought forward throughout the narrative. The characters’ interaction with those themes. With themselves. With their circumstances. With one another. Throughout. Their arcs. The story arc. All of it. The whole shebang.

I’ve been writing fiction a long time. I’m a little like another writer Margaret Atwood mentioned in her book: “Reena, a thirty-four-year-old woman who has been writing since the age of six and throwing it all into the waste basket, but who thinks she may now be almost ready to begin.” I’ve been writing longer than 34 years, and I have the same feeling as Reena. I may be ready to begin.

What is it like to go into a novel? To unpack and arrange prose that will eventually furnish a story? Again, Atwood:

   Obstruction, obscurity, emptiness, disorientation, twilight, blackout, often combined with a struggle or path or journey—an inability to see one’s way forward, but a feeling that there was a way forward, and that the act of going forward would eventually bring about the conditions for vision—these were the common elements in many descriptions of the process of writing. I was reminded of something a medical student said to me about the interior of the human body, forty years ago: “It’s dark in there.”
   Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.

There was a time in college when I wanted to major in biology. It didn’t take me long to realize it wasn’t the field for me. The insides of living things never look very much like the pictures in the textbooks. The parts vary from body to body, and it takes years of experience to learn to recognize them in their variations. Novels-in-progress are dark and messy inside too. The important parts vary from story to story, and it can take a long time to learn to recognize them, let alone manipulate them.

Incredibly, many men and women feel writing novels is worth the effort. And the agony. Perhaps we’re onto something lofty in our quest to unpack our thoughts, sort the clutter into something comprehensible, and thereby illuminate the darkness. I believe we are. I’m with the psalmist, who long ago said, “I will incline my ear to a proverb. I will disclose my dark saying on the harp.”

Why? For the beauty of it.


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