Creating a Text – Jenny Davidson
What phases are involved in the creation of a text?
The first thing that has to happen: I find myself chewing over some question or premise that won’t go away. It’s months or years later and it’s still there, in the back of my head or maybe further forward than that. Could be anything, and in my experience it’s pretty much the same for an academic book as for a novel. Why is there one word, “breeding,” that seems to work as a synonym for nature as well as for nurture? What would it be like to grow up in an alternate-universe version of the 1930s in which the great cities of Northern Europe—Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Hamburg, Tallinn, St. Petersburg—were all united in a political alliance called the New Hanseatic League, and what kind of a novel might let me capture the feeling those cities had given me as a visitor of existing in a strange secret network altogether separate from Mediterranean Europe like something out of Hans Christian Andersen?
The next thing: decision-making. I am more or less pathologically decisive, so this stage I don’t find difficult, I always see a clear way forward, but some writers become paralyzed by the number of different ideas they see looming before them. To my mind, there’s always one choice that best lets me satisfy all the different needs and work out whatever idea I’m mulling over. (Really any book I write, novel or academic, is going to be driven by the need to think something through as well as to tell a story.) So, a commitment to a particular project. Some reading and research, some frantic note-taking (this stage is very enjoyable), some thinking and outlining.
I start writing when I have a plan. For my latest novel, I had a fairly detailed outline for the first half, but the second half was an exciting blank; I had a very vivid picture of one scene that was going to happen around the 85% mark, and also of the showdown in a dynamite factory that would take place in the penultimate chapter, but I had to write my way through the rest of it, and one of the most exciting things about working on that book was seeing all sorts of things take off in the second half that I had no idea of in advance.
I’m a great draft-writer. I draft the whole thing (we’re talking about novels here) from start to finish, writing in longhand in little notebooks. Then I type up the draft, including a first edit. Then I edit the hard copy, type in revisions, repeat ad nauseam. This latest novel probably underwent at least 10 revision cycles, each one of which potentially involved two or three or four close copy-edits. At some point (usually more than once), I read the whole thing out loud to myself, to make sure the sentences sound right and that I can stand by them.
Getting a book out into the world is psychologically trying, and requires stamina and the ritual excision of self-doubt. Getting an agent’s hard, getting a publisher’s nerve-racking. Fortunately I have the most wonderful editor, so that the revisions I’ve just done for her have immeasurably improved the book—though I had revised it so many times already, I learned a ton of things, including that it is indeed possible to cut 30,000 words from a very-much-worked-over and quite polished and readable manuscript.
In many ways I find academic writing easier than fiction. I love the reading and research and note-taking, and when I’m writing the kind of literary essay or literary-cultural history that I like to do, I usually build up a whole armature of footnotes and quotations (I picture it like the chicken-wire skeleton you might assemble before you put together a papier-mache head of some kind), so that by the time I’m ready to write—again longhand, again start to finish—I know pretty much what I need to say. Lots of revision, again; I often feel as if I am pushing some monstrous heap of snow forward with an enormous shovel.
In general, whatever kind of writing I’m doing, I find myself with an intense visual image of the day’s work. It’s project-specific: drafting my second novel, I sat at the table every morning so strongly visualizing myself hacking a way clear with a machete through a tall field of cane that I could almost feel my triceps flexing and aching.
Obviously you can’t write anything good if you don’t have some little germ of talent hidden away somewhere. But I am a great believer in the forms of self-cultivation. I am annoyed by advice of the write-every-day sort. I write something every day, of course, but many days I write blog posts and e-mails rather than writing anything real, as it were. I have a demanding job and inevitably there’s some fallow time between projects and I have never found write-properly-every-day a realistic discipline. But there’s no doubt you build up stamina and skill over the years, and if you keep working on it, and if you pay close attention to your own stumbling-blocks, it is amazing what can be accomplished. More writers are crippled by self-doubt or indecision than by technical incompetence; but self-doubt and indecision are as amenable to being addressed as incompetence. There is no excuse for not working on these things.
Jenny Davidson is the author of the novels Heredity and The Explosionist; she teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and blogs at Light Reading.