I recently finished a rewrite on a novel, sent it off to my agent, slapped the dust off my hands, and thought, “Well done.” So nice to read something of mine that felt legitimately done. It was a long process getting there, with many dead ends followed, many nights wasted worrying about this character or that chapter, but in the end I felt the story found its way. Strange and unsettling, then, to return to a novel I began writing while the one I had just finished made its first rounds of submissions. It had been a while, so I needed to read what I had to get reacquainted. Here I was confronted with the stark difference between first draft and last draft. I thought often of what Alice Hoffman said about starting a new novel, that she begins each thinking, “I don’t know how to do this.” This from a woman who has “done this” over twenty times.
Trouble is, I forget just how vague and unformed my stories are at their inception. It’s like the very first stages of a friendship. Initially, I see only the strengths and potential. Yet for every strength there is a limitation. No one person can be everything, and no one story can encompass all I want to say. In the early drafts, I spend a lot of time wandering around seeking those limitations. Some of my friends love good wine but hate football. Best not to waste time talking about football with these friends.
A story’s boundaries define its focus, and the pleasure of a story lies in this focus. A lump of clay can be anything, yet eventually the artist must choose what it is not to know what it will be. Aging can sometimes be seen in much the same way. You make choice after choice after choice, eschewing this road and that road, and so you are led away from all the other things you might have done. But your life is never what you have done, just as a story, really, is never really about what happens in it. Most stories tell the same tale—the realization that is in fact good to be alive. I think most friendships, and most lives, amount to much the same.