“This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto a flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing- all the color, the light, the movement- is gone… That’s my book.”
Ann Patchett, The Getaway Car, Byliner, September 2011
As I’ve mentioned, I adore authors’ writing memoirs. And for all that I’ve never read a Patchett novel, her collection of essays is probably my favorite. I certainly marked enough of the passages.
The passage I copied up there stopped me in my tracks. Never before had someone explained how I felt about the writing process so clearly. I can dream up a fantastically beautiful story that, in my mind, is as gorgeous as a watercolor tattoo . (Have you seen those? Slightly NSFW, with bare torsos as far as the eye can see.) Somehow my writing never measures up.
During this round of editing I was struck anew by how stark the difference is between what I imagine and what I actually produce. Since part of what I’m doing is adding new sections to the story, it’s especially striking to see the difference between a section of first-draft writing and something that’s been edited 2-3-7 times. It’s enough to make an aspiring author take up something easier, like particle physics.
Luckily, today two things happened to keep me from throwing in the towel. First, my agent(!!!) sent me a message asking if I was going to be ready by the deadline. Yes, ma’am! There’s nothing like the voice of authority checking in to make you hop to it.
Second, a writerly friend who was published recently (Mary Feliz, check her out!) checked in to see how the editing was going. When I admitted that I had hit yet another “I am the worst writer in the history of the English language and my agent(!!!) is going to dump me as soon as she receives this steaming pile of trash” streak, she told me that I had to be doing something right, because ever True Author feels that way.
Her words couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m two weeks out from the deadline and I think her encouragement will give me the boost I need to get there. It may be a pinned, dead butterfly, but it’s going to be the best pinned, dead butterfly I can make it. Thanks Mary!
How do you keep your spirits up during endless editing? Does writing feel like murdering a magic insect to you, or do your words come out the way you want them to? Should I run away and join the circus? Let me know!
P.S. I’m twelve days away from giving my agent(!!!) the full manuscript for the first time. AAAH!