Working Papers

Something finished comes from something unfinished.

Sketches for the painting. Drafts for the writer.

Once in a while, these things are available for public scrutiny. One writer tells me of his time in the British Museum studying edited manuscripts, Charles Dickens, for example, splayed right before him. It was access to the writer’s thinking—his cross outs, his additions—and in his own hand, which in itself can be revealing.

How’d the master do it? Take a look.

But absent the ability to peruse working papers, a student can still copy as a means of learning.

Some choose Hemingway to better understand the power of a simple sentence. Joan Didion tells of her husband, John Gregory Dunne’s copying out portions of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice to see how the author “worked it out.”

When you stop to look—clinically, curiously—it’s remarkable what you can learn.

Photo credit: Ms page – Beinecke Flickr Laboratory; paparazzi –

Getting it Right

The writer Joan Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne had an expression for when a work was successful.  They asked each other: Did the author “get it right?”

The line jumped out at me, for that is my measure as well and the only question that matters.

The language, the structure, the content, the message, the point, the moral, if there is one, the color, feel, smell, taste and texture of a thing, the arc of the narrative, beginnings, middles, and ends, the details, the rhythm, the resonance, the opening line—did I get it right?

If it isn’t right—if it’s hollow, or stupid, or naïve, or clumsy, or misguided, or annoying, or just plain wrong—I will undertake as many revisions as are required to fix it.

The most amount of time I have spent on a single line at a single sitting? 45 minutes.

The most I have scrapped at one time? 425 pages—twice.

But getting it right is the entire point of a day’s labor. If I succeed, I can at the least offer a reader a bit of clarity in a complicated world. If I don’t succeed, I just add to the noise.

Photo credit: both images, Sigurd Decroos, stock.xchng