Last summer, in Italy, I stood gaping before Michelangelo’s David and reflexively took a photo—no flash, but forgetting that all tourists’ photos of him are banned—and got chastised. Supposedly Michelangelo said he made the immortal statue by just chipping away what didn’t look like David. I’ve thought of writing as having to first create a block of marble, then pounding it into a narrative. Which must be an evident metaphor, because Bill Roorbach mentioned it in his blog’s recent advice post in trying to answer my question about how to cut my book.
Standing amidst the slag I’ve already jettisoned, I am too close now to the shaped narrative to see what else should go. And I don’t want to put the book in a drawer for ten years. I’m long-winded, as readers of this blog know, but in theory I understand the power of concision.
One of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect movie—aside from brilliant casting, score, and narration—is that Horton Foote compressed the novel’s three years into one, focusing on Boo Radley, the racial incident, and the trial. The novel drags a bit for me, and I read it most successfully as an atmospheric memoir, which it appears to be, except for Harper Lee’s inspired fictionalized use of a real racial incident for the dramatic core of her book. When the movie was edited Gregory Peck insisted the children be trimmed further, and the director excised the thread of Jem’s and Scout’s relationship with Mrs. Dubose. She ends up just a mean old lady on a porch, and the spotlight shines more strongly on Peck and the trial. I think Peck was right, whatever his motives, but of course today we’d watch every outtake if we could. (I’m an instant expert from reading the recent biography of Lee, Mockingbird, plus watching the DVD’s commentaries.)
As I try to cut my memoir, at least I’ve seen a new way in, thanks to a friend’s reading. She showed me that while I’ve written a rather chronological story, my memoir may need to open with something out of sequence. This is common, of course. Recently I saw Lidia Yuknavitch do it in her edgy memoir The Chronology of Water. For Yuknavitch, a competitive swimmer, water is a metaphor for the flowing, non-chronological nature of memory. Actually hers is a chronological unfolding overall, too, beginning with her traumatic girlhood in her dysfunctional family, but it opens with the stillbirth of her daughter. Yet the way she writes, what she focuses on and how she tells it, her very syntax, de-emphasizes her story’s chronological spine. (Thanks to Cynthia Newberry Martin at Catching Days for calling attention to The Chronology of Water.)
Several weeks ago I lugged my manuscript to my friend Candyce Canzoneri for feedback. It had grown in my latest rewrite by 220 pages, to 520. Candy is a writer with a wonderful sense of humor, and reading my doorstopper took someone with a blithe spirit. She gave me her response to the first act right away: pretty good, except the first chapter’s opening is all wrong. It was about the fifth or so version of that chapter.
But I knew she was right. The entire chapter wasn’t bad, she said, but the first five or so pages describing me and my family finding a farm in Appalachia didn’t work. I got readers imprinted on that farm, and we didn’t end up with it. Readers are like goslings: they imprint on first things. What appears and moves out first.
The opening had virtues I hated to lose: it was a long, vivid, rolling scene—therefore inherently dramatic and engaging and experiential—and smoothly introduced the cast of characters and a smidgen of background. But Candy said, “I’m not sure yet where it should start, but not there.” She found what she sought in chapter seven. “That Bromfield stuff,” she said. “Start with that.”
She was right again, though reworking the passage has been a challenge. The Bromfield stuff, about the influence on me as a kid of Ohio novelist and agrarian writer Louis Bromfield, was interlocked with references to material readers had learned about earlier. And yet I saw that leading with Bromfield solved so many more problems than it caused. It’s a passage with a lot of heat—though it’s mostly expository—and shows why a child of the suburbs wanted to farm. In short, a teenager growing up in a Florida beach town, pining for the loss of his family’s Georgia farm when he was six, stumbles across reprints of postwar Malabar Farm and Pleasant Valley, two of the most romantic books ever written about agriculture. It was like pouring gasoline on a pile of parched driftwood and striking a match. And I realize only now how much Bromfield’s romantic prose underlies my own attempts at describing the lovely Appalachian landscape of southeastern Ohio.
Pleasant Valley is a memoir about Bromfield’s return to northeastern Ohio from France in 1938. Having fled the Nazis, the writer, by then a famous and Pulitzer-winning novelist, sought refuge in the purchase of farms totaling about 1,000 acres. The book opens with a scene of Bromfield, his wife, and his literary manager driving into a hushed snowy valley, where the writer imagines the dreamy summer landscape he’d known as a child:
What I saw was a spring stream in summer, flowing through pastures of bluegrass and white clover and bordered by willows. Here and there in the meanderings of the stream there were deep holes where in the clear water you see the shiners and the bluegills, the sunfish and the big red horse-suckers and now and then a fine small-mouthed bass. On a hot day you could strip off your clothes and slip into one of those deep holes and lie there in the cool water among the bluegills and crawfish, letting the cool water pour over you while the minnows nibbled at your toes. And when you climbed out to dry in the hot sun and dress yourself, you trampled on mint and its cool fragrance scented all the warm air about you. . . .
And I saw the old mills, high, unpainted, silver-gray with the weathering of a hundred years, the big lofts smelling of wheat and corn and outside the churning millrace where fat, big carp and suckers lay in the deep water to feed on the spilled grain and mash.
In such broad brushstrokes Bromfield painted the lost world of his boyhood. I was his perfect reader. Curled up in an overstuffed chair in our house a block from the beach, I learned of America’s true paradise: Ohio. Oh, the irony. Well, here I am in Ohio today. Without him I wouldn’t have accepted a fellowship to Ohio State—just so I could visit Malabar Farm, now a state park—and wouldn’t have met my future wife without him.
Bromfield’s work occasioned some memorable, if terse, talks with my depressive father, who in the wake of his farming dreams was making his way as an executive at Kennedy Space Center. When I showed Dad those cheap mass market paperbacks I’d found in the mall bookstore—color covers of dewy pastures and freshly turned loamy soil— he pointed out the originals in his library. His hardcover versions, bound in black cloth, were embossed with a red Harper & Brothers logo showing a torch being passed from one hand to another.
I’m not happy that two thirds of my first chapter is now expository rather than scenic. Yet I know I went overboard with scenes in the last rewrite—one of the reasons the book is so long; scenes take more pages than summary. I was in good voice when I started writing almost six years ago, and the Bromfield passages, generated early, retain some of that sunny spirit. I was unselfconsciously expository, and very confident, having nary a clue about the depth of my ignorance about writing a book. Thank goodness.
And now, thanks to Candy’s keen eye, I’ve found a new opening and knocked the book back to 450 pages. And counting . . .