This morning I walk around the house feeling happy and I’m struck by what I’m doing. Actually, I’m struck by only one gesture I happen to make, but that one gesture inspires me to write a sentence describing what I have just been doing. This is usually an effective approach in writing because one striking element can be the culmination of a series of more ordinary elements that would not stand on their own.
So I go to my notebook, which is lying open beside my “official” work—a typed and nearly finished story that needs three or four changes. My notebook always lies beside my “official” work because I write in it most when I am supposed to be doing something else. So today I write down a sentence about what I have just been doing. I write it in the third person. Sometimes I write about myself in the third person and sometimes in the first. Thinking about it now, I realize what determines this: If it matters that I’m the one doing something, if I am truly the subject, then I write in the first person. If it does not matter who is doing it and I’m simply interested that a person is doing the thing, then I write in the third person—i.e., I’m using myself as a source of material and I’m more comfortable writing in the third person because then I (the writing I) don’t get in the way of the character that may evolve from this action. (Sometimes, the “I” has tended to become a “he” in the stories—the “he” being a slightly overweight, feminine sort of man, gentle, androgynous. More recently, the “I” usually becomes a “she.”)
So I write it down and then immediately revise it. Today I revise this sentence immediately; sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Maybe it depends on how interested I am in what I write down, or maybe I don’t revise it if the writing is so simple or brief that it comes out exactly right the first time. Today it isn’t quite right and I must be interested because I revise it: I want it to be exactly right. I will work on it until it is exactly right, whether or not the observation is important and whether or not I think I’ll ever “use” it. In fact, I don’t often use notebook entries in a story unless the entry turns into the story (as was the case, for instance, with “Liminal: The Little Man” in Break It Down, and many others).
I don’t generally use these entries, because my stories tend to be written in one uninterrupted “breath” and they usually don’t work if I start piecing them together. Then why do I revise the notebook entries? I’m not sure, but I will guess. For one thing, it is hard for me to let a sentence stand if I see something wrong with it. Even when I’m writing a grocery list it is hard for me not to correct a misspelling. For another, I tend to follow my instincts in writing—I don’t question my impulses. So if I want to revise, I don’t tell myself there is no point in revising. There may be a reason for my doing something, a reason that I don’t understand at the moment but that will become clear later on. There may come a day when I will use one or more of these separate notebook entries in a larger written work. I may turn back a few years in the notebook, read an entry, and see how it could become something larger. And if it is poorly written, if it is left unrevised, I will have more trouble seeing what it wants to be.
There is also the constant practice I get from revising notebook entries. And it may be that what I have worked out in the final version of one notebook entry may inspire another sentence in a new story without my even realizing it. Or maybe the notebook is a place to practice not only writing but also thinking. After all, when you revise a sentence you are revising not only the words of the sentence but also the thought in the sentence. And more generally, by getting a certain description exactly right, I am sharpening my powers of observation as well as my ability to handle the language. So there are many ways to justify working hard on one sentence in a notebook, a sentence that you may never use. But most of all, as I said, I follow my impulses in writing without asking whether what I am doing is sensible, efficient, moral, et cetera. I do it because I like to or want to—which is where everything in writing should begin anyway. (As for the question of morality—I won’t publish something if it seems to me morally wrong to publish it, but the act of exploration that is writing is very different from the finality and publicness of publishing. Writing is private until it is made public.)
The notebook is also where I write stories. Every story I write begins in the notebook and in fact is usually written entirely in the notebook. There is a good reason for that, though it took me a while to realize it: in the notebook nothing has to be permanent or good. Here I have complete freedom and so I am not afraid. You can’t write well—you can’t do anything well—if you feel cornered. I am not afraid because what I write in here doesn’t have to become a story, but if it wants to, it will. In some sense, I don’t deliberately set out to write stories anymore. I used to, and I started them on clean sheets of typing paper in the typewriter. (This was actually at the time when I took my one writing course, which was with Grace Paley—I must have felt more professional working this way.) Now the stories force themselves on me. It took years for this to happen, and I’m not sure how I got it to happen, except by pushing myself—if the stories weren’t occurring to me, then I sat down and thought them up and wrote them no matter how uncomfortable and forced that felt and despite the fact that the stories were not entirely satisfactory to me.
First I wrote long stories because I thought a story had to be long. My characters were based on people I did not know very much about, and sometimes I guessed right about human nature. At least the settings were sometimes good, because I knew the settings well. Then I realized I did not have to write long stories—in fact I could write in whatever way I wanted, and for a while I pushed myself out of a dry spell by writing two paragraph-long stories every day. Most of them were not wonderful, but a few were good, and that was enough. For a while after that, I wrote only very short stories in short, neat sentences. By now that has changed, too.
Eventually I didn’t have to search for ideas; a story would impose itself on me or well up in me—now I feel I must write the story, I must get rid of it. Nabokov said he never set out to write a novel but to get rid of it. Maybe the notebook is also, for me, a place to get rid of everything, and the more exactly I put it down the more completely I get rid of it. Some sentences want to be stories right away. The latest one that grew immediately into a story—still in rough form at the moment—was “It took the queen of England to make my mother stop criticizing my sister.” This happens to be true.
Sometimes the notebook entry becomes a story; in other cases, it is nothing more than a sentence or a few sentences and will never be more, or not for the foreseeable future; and sometimes it seems to want to be a story and I go back to it from time to time but it won’t grow. It may be just too limited (or too absurd) to make a developed story, even though it is striking. Or maybe I haven’t quite got the idea yet, and I’m trying to develop the story in the wrong direction.
Speaking of not being afraid when you write, I see that I have evolved quite involuntarily two habits that make me not afraid. One is the habit of starting every story in the notebook, where it is under no pressure to be a story; the other is that quite often I do what I did today: I sit in front of the typed pages of a story that is nearly finished and that I am not trying to finish, and instead of working on it, I begin another story in my notebook and write that out until nothing more occurs to me. It is easier to do that—to begin a story—when that is not what I had planned to do. My unconscious, or whatever part of the brain works hardest in writing something new, is very relaxed and comfortable because there is a clear-cut task to go back to when I have nothing more to add, for the moment, to the new story.
Meanwhile the typed story just sits there. The same thing may happen the next day. Sometimes I have four or five, or more, stories in progress at once. It is nice to feel that there is too much to work on rather than nothing at all—the blank page. Some stories, not quite finished, may get pushed out of the way in all this activity and may be forgotten for a while—even months. But sooner or later I come back to them and finish them, and it does not hurt them to let this time pass. I see them more clearly.
Of course, there is much more to say about notebooks. Many writers have kept notebooks. Kafka kept a notebook full of ideas for stories, beginnings of stories, complete stories, accounts of evenings he spent with friends in cafés, and then also complaints about his family, landlady, neighbors, et cetera. His complaints about his neighbors’ real noises on the other side of the wall became written fantasies about unreal people on the other side of the wall. A writer’s notebook becomes a record, or the objectification of a mind. There were painters, like Delacroix, who kept wonderful notebooks. And then there were writers who never published anything but their notebooks, like the eighteenth-century Frenchman Joseph Joubert.
On the day I’m talking about, my plan is to finish the last story of a collection of stories. I do work on it for a while, then I notice my behavior walking through the house, then I record what I was doing, then I stop to think how the process of writing and revision has been working for me, and then I decide to write down this description of it.
She walks around the house balancing on the balls of her feet, sometimes whistling and singing, sometimes talking to herself, sometimes stopping dead in a fencing position.
Here’s how it evolved from first sentences and phrases to last:
She is likely to walk around the house lightly on the balls of her feet...(bad rhyme here: likely/lightly)
around the house slowly...(doesn’t suggest happiness)
around the house slowly but delicately...(too much explanation)
around the house slowly, carefully...(not strong enough)
around the house slowly, carefully, balancing on the balls of her feet...(too wordy)
around the house slowly balancing on the balls of her feet...(good, I like it. then later I think, Too much, and take out slowly. now the first part of the sentence is finished)
sometimes whistling, sometimes singing, sometimes talking to herself, sometimes...(no. too many sometimes)
sometimes whistling and singing...(no. can’t do both at once)
sometimes whistling or singing...(no. sounds too deliberate)
sometimes whistling and singing...(okay after all, can be one after the other)
sometimes stopping dead and assuming a fencing position...(no. too many -ings in there. but I know I have to end with “fencing position”—it’s the culminating, striking image. it’s what made me write the sentence down in the first place. it’s also a strong phrase, and the word position is a strong word)
sometimes stopping dead in a fencing position...(cutting solved the -ing problem)