Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Finishing

I was talking with some people last night at the great Bloomsday celebration at yours and my favorite indy bookstore, Urban Think, in Thornton Park, and someone was saying that he knew a writer who writes first drafts on a typewriter, then puts them on the computer as a second draft. Why haven't I ever thought of that? I'm so much more friendly to the keyboard than my own legendarily bad handwriting. One reason I have never thought of that is that first drafts usually go in my notebook which one would think is a place for handwriting, but sometimes I do a first draft on the computer, print it out, edit it by hand, and tape the edited copy into my notebook. So already it, the notebook, isn't a place solely for handwriting. I paste, tape, and post many different things in there. Typed drafts would be fine.

I should go on ebay or craigslist and see if I can find an Olympia portable in great condition. It would be a real adjustment, reintroducing into the household the steady click clack ding zing bang. When I was growing up in the big house (shown here), I had a desk in my room that instead of setting on the floor like an ordinary desk was bolted to the vertical oak studs behind the plaster wall, the easier to clean beneath it. From sixth grade, I was up there in my room typing, and I had my grandfather's serious Royal upright, battleship gray and weighing in at four hundred and twenty two pounds. When I would throw the carriage (sorry to the young pups -- you had to be there), the whole house would shake. You've heard of teenagers playing music too loud in their rooms. My parents would have given anything if I'd preferred Gracie Slick and the Beatles on the hi-fi instead.

I read Updike one time saying that when he first started writing, he just liked to see all those words of his on a page, and a lot of what he was doing in his stories had to do with filling the page up, and he said he was always supremely satisfied to roll a page out of the typewriter that was completely filled with his words. In fact, it was always a little disconcerting to him to take a page out that was not "finished." To him, “finished” meant filling the available space. When he was young, that is -- later, finished to Updike had the meaning it has to the rest of us -- finding the end of our story, completing the writing of it so that the draft has a beginning, middle, and an end.

I might look around for a typewriter, or oil up the old family Hermes, that we used to use for addressing envelopes before we learned how to do that on the printer. The Olympia was a great typewriter, not talking about the electric. I remember buying my first Olympia in Champaign, '66. I had a second one, '71.

In my mind, there is some connection I haven’t understood yet between typing on the typewriter and finishing. Somehow the levels of effort for typing accurately to avoid excessive retyping and for squaring away the content in a story were one thing. On the computer keyboard, the writing is supremely easy, revision so easy it is sometimes too easy, and the arc and heart of a story become the main concentration which, separated from the process of writing, seems to come along slower. Who’d have thunk it?

My experience with this may not be the common experience. To comment on this precise thing, you’d have to have done plenty of time doing creative writing on a typewriter, and with that understanding I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about finishing. Over the past five years, I’ve seemed to have developed a habit of robust starts that come to not very much. A story idea that comes along goes into a partial first draft satisfactorily, but I don’t give it the time, or lose the enthusiasm, and the next thing you know it’s on the back burner or abandoned entirely. This habit came along without my spotting it as a pattern until recently.

I know enough about me and writing to know how to address this. In writing, word by word, line by line, story by story, there is always a balance between the application of discipline and logic and the “go with the flow” surge of instinct and impulse. Both angles on the text are needed, discipline and instinct. The author is in charge. Therefore, as the author, if I notice I’m not finishing a lot of stuff and it concerns me, the fix is to break the habit by finishing no matter what. Well, I’ll tell myself, it may not be worth finishing. Well, MAKE it worth finishing, I’ll reply. I’m trying to make this a practical, workable observation on finishing, so I’ll take the ideal out of it. Everything can’t be finished or made worth finishing. To which I think to myself, yeah, but let’s improve the average.

I know that can be done, because I do keep a lot of my unfinished drafts, and years later I’ll take a look and miserably observe that the draft had a lot going for it and I should have finished it. Sometimes it is hard to get one’s self back in some bygone mode to finish an old start. It should be tried when one arrives on the idea that he has to begin finishing more. But the lesson in looking back on the junk pile of starts that were worthy but given up on is mainly to reaffirm something the typewriter years taught us, that writing is work, that the good stuff is hard to do which is why the few rewards for the good, finished work are so sweet.

No magic. I’ve got a 6,000 word story troubled by unresolved autobiography and some other torments, and word back from my trusty first readers isn’t good. As usual, they’ve seen into the piece perfectly, spelling out its issues (which far outweigh it). Finishing is far off. It will involve pushing. It will involve reading the piece over and over until I understand my own motives and edit out the crap and spot strands that aren’t being pulled through. And press on—I’m in a covered wagon, westward ho the long trek. My horses and ox are being hoisted up Scott’s Bluff, in Nebraska, which looks like a big obstacle. The ferryman has my wagons on the river. I’m hoping to get to the ocean. I don’t know it, but between me and finishing, there’s the Grand Tetons.

On another burner I’ve got a big story, culminating piece of an otherwise pretty successful book manuscript. I know the problems. First readers have helped, but I knew the problems all along. The piece, at the conceptual level, was risky, but that’s what I wanted and every time I reread it it’s still what I want. Onward. It’s summer.

There’s probably a science to finishing a story. Maybe a seven step process. Or a twelve step process to address the habit of not finishing. Nevermind. We know what to do. Lean into it. Read it again for all its possibilities. Don’t be afraid. Get a little joy. Work in the morning earlier, well before the sun is up. Leave the radio off. Take the coffee black. Work to finish. Retype the goddamn thing! Let it be messy—not every piece we write will be a masterwork, but the process of finishing grows us in the art, make no mistake—takes us to the next level where the good work is.


  1. 1) I love Urban Think! They handled all of the sales for the SCBWI conference today.

    2) It's funny that you should bring all of this up. On the very day you were typing this post, Gary Schmidt (_Wednesday Wars_)was telling writers at a conference in Arkansas the very same thing. Like you, he thinks that things are too easy and too final on a computer. He says writing is work, should be work. Gary realizes this maxim through his recursive process. He revises as he works, such that he has revisited and rewritten the first chapter ten times or so by the time he types what he thinks will be the last word. And he admits that this means that he works at a slower pace. Gary went on to say that he writes all of his novels on a typewriter and only types them on the computer once the draft is his very best out-the-door-to-the-editor-to-meet-the-contract version. Anyway, this all affirms your ponderings on typewriters and writing as a process. The writing program was Teachers as Writers ( and I led one of the evening writing workshops. It was a wonderful week :) Hope that all is well with you.

    PS- I love to hear and listen to "the steady click clack ding zing bang" of a typewriter in an otherwise quiet room. We didn't have a computer until the second half of my senior year of high school.

  2. Enjoyed reading this, and seeing Deaver, Lilly, and Kessler on my computer screen. Have wanted for a long time to ask if you'd read the poetry volume Stumbling In The Bloom by John Pass. He is a friend of a friend of mine, and won, I believe, the top prize in Canada for this volume of poems. I liked them a lot.

    My best...say hello to Susan, to Russ, and share this suggestion, too, if you will.

    Pat James

  3. Your post makes me think of the letters my father sent my mother..years before I was born..from a ship somewhere in the Pacific (any reference to location slit squarely out by the censor with a razor blade). Those letters, now in my attic, were typed on onionskin paper, and I could read them forward or turn over the paper and read backward as if looking for hidden messages. My father hit the keys on that World War II clunker so hard that the period poked a hole and when I hold the paper to the light, it's like looking at stained glass with tiny rays of sun shining through. He had a love affair with that typewriter..and I can't remember if he said it was a Royal or an Underwood. The machine was a link to the world for him, a door he could walk through to home, which in those days was Virginia's Blue Ridge and the house perched on a mountainside along Magazine Street. I wish I had the typewriter now. I imagine words stored inside it still, waiting to be released. Thanks for this reflection, Phil.