Timmi: I’ve been interested in the post-composition stage of writing for a long time. So when I read Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, it particularly provoked me into thinking about this aspect of the writing process. In his opening essay, “Emblems of Talent,” he uses the German term Begeisterung to designate the passion that is needed to drive the writer to the heights of achievement, and he roughly translates this term as “inspiration.” Now most people—especially those who aren’t artists—conceive of “inspiration” as what happens in the moment that one has an idea, rather than as the passion to take that idea and the work it is based on past the initial rough stage to its ultimate realization. In effect, Delany’s use of the term insists on the primary importance of that second stage of work, where the artist is reshaping the material that she has already brought into existence. Does this way of talking about it make sense to you?
Nicola: It makes sense only if 'inspiration' means vision--not just a clear vision of the work but of self. I'm committed to the notion of brilliance, of never letting a mediocre piece of work past my door. Flawed, yes, inevitably so; mediocre, never. I see myself as a great writer. I have to live up to that vision. I will draw on whatever it takes: will, drive, hope, psychotic self-belief. I understand The Yellow Wallpaper much better now. Am I willing to stare into the abyss yet again with another novel? No! Except, well, yes, of course, because why be a writer if you're not willing to go all the way to make the best possible book?
Timmi: Does the work of composing prose feel more immediate to you than the work of rewriting?
Nicola: Often rewriting is original composition: new scenes with new characters, employing new metaphor systems in the service of new emotional depth. It's just doing it inside a previously explored framework.
However, if what you're asking is: does doing the first draft feel different to subsequent drafts the answer is yes, it does, absolutely (see my answer below).
Timmi: Do you consider the rewriting and reshaping part of the process as vital and important as the immediate composition of the prose?
Nicola: Vital, yes, important, yes. Different, yes. The first draft is the first time with an idea, and it's all about the thrill of the new: discovery, challenge, uncertainty, ecstasy, delight. On some level, a first draft is also deadly serious, exploratory play, it's where you find out if it's going to work, if it's going to be worth developing a long-term relationship.
Big structural rewrites are like those discoveries of something different with a long-term partner: wow, who knew?! Mind-blowingly different and yet strangely familiar. Vastly rewarding.
Intending only a first draft is like a one-night stand. It's fun, and it has its own rewards, but I wouldn't want to take it home to my mother, y'know?
It occurs to me that building a sequence of novels around one character, as I've done with Aud in TBP, Stay, and now Always, is not dissimilar to rewriting in this way. With each novel I re-examine Aud, dig just a little deeper into a woman I already know.
Timmi: Does the knowledge that the first draft may be substantially changed when you’ve finished it make you feel freer to follow your intuition wherever it may lead you? Or do you think the way you write the first draft would be pretty much the same?
Nicola: It's all necessary. I can't imagine any part of the process without the other parts.
The notion of 'intuition' in writing doesn't please me. The first time, yes--I think we all start out writing beyond ourselves--but at this stage I'm far happier thinking about the non-verbal understanding of where I need to go and how as 'expertise'. Intuition is for beginners.
Timmi: And finally, how do you decide when you’re actually, absolutely, done?
Nicola: I think there's a crossing point: where book and author reach an equilibrium, and understanding, where I'm ready to let it go, and I know it can stand on its own. I won't let a book out of the house until I know I can look it in the eye year after year. Twenty years from now, any fault I let by because of impatience will be magnified. For me, a book has to be as close to perfect as humanly possible.
Books, however, come from people. People change. If you start changing in the middle of writing a book, then all bets are off, because if you're changing, what you want from a novel changes. Then you have an awful decision to make. My desktop (and desk drawers) are littered with dozens of abandoned projects. Ideas are cheap. Some are not worth pursuing.
When it comes to being 'done', writing is unlike anything else. Unlike a relationship with a person, when a novel is done it's not over; it's not broken; it's ready to begin, ready to venture into the world.
Timmi: Thanks, Nicola. The next time we drink wine together, please remind me to make a toast to all writers who choose, like you, to risk writing a flawed novel instead of taking the more usual path of writing a mediocre one.