Writing: Wrestling Sheets of Balsa Wood

“Wrestling sheets of balsa wood in the high wind.” That’s how David Foster Wallace described working on The Pale King.

The memoir is coming along but it is slow going. On Wednesday I worked for two hours and maybe wrote 15 sentences. I’m not so sure I am wrestling balsa wood in the high wind. Maybe more like waiting on the outer edges of the universe – where the writing muses live – to snatch a phrase or sentence passing overhead.

Wrestling balsa wood, snatching sentences fragments as the writing faeries pass overhead. Either metaphor – or one of your choosing – speaks to the simple fact known by all writers: this is hard and difficult work. Solitary work, where, for me, I can explore the contours of my own mind.

I now understand why reading is the counterpart to writing. When I sit down to work on the memoir, I may not have a particular text in my mind. In other instances, I do work with a text I find illuminating. But in the instances where I do not, I am always amazed when a phrase or sentence from a book I read long ago pops into mind at a time when it is needed most. Then the writing muses just jiggle my brain around to dislodge something stuck.

People who don’t write say things like “well, if you want to write, just write.” As if writing only concerns itself with words on a page. If that were true, medical prescriptions could be construed as a kind of haiku.

I have left a known shore and have lost sight of land. Here is where the writing pros separate themselves from the amateur. Writing Pros won’t give up. We can’t. We know we must yank, pull, birth, excavate until this thing – a body of poetry, a novel, screen play – is out on the page and done, whatever done means for the writer.

Sometimes done takes years. Michael Pietsch, Publisher at Little, Brown and Company describes the trove of drafts, false starts and more polished chapters he, Wallace’s literary agent Bonnie Nadell and Wallace’s wife Karen Green found in Wallace’s studio.

Reading this material in the months after returning, I found an astonishingly full novel, created with the superabundant originality and humor that were uniquely David’s. As I read these chapters I felt unexpected joy, because while inside this world that David had made I felt as if I were in his presence, and was able to forget awhile the awful fact of his death. Some pieces were neatly typed and revised through numerous versions. Others were drafts in David’s minuscule handwriting. Some had been recently polished. Others were much older and contained abandoned or superseded plotlines. There were notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas, instructions to himself. (Emphasis mine.) All these materials were gorgeously alive and charged with observations; reading them was the closest thing to seeing his amazing mind at play upon the world. One leather bound workbook was still closed around a green felt marker with which David had recently written.

I quote these words for myself, mostly, I think. I told a writing buddy I wanted a draft of the memoir by summer’s end. I’m sure that won’t be the end, though there is a part of me that wishes that were true. Most writers are perfectionists. But even more than perfectionism, what drives us to keep working at something is a need to have the words on the page match visions we have in our heads. With each rewrite we hone the words and reflect on how closely they match our vision.

The delicacy of each something described by Wallace – wrestling sheets of balsa wood – resists easy sentences and cliched plots. Writers conjure and the conjuring requires a balance of knowing when to keep at the something at hand and knowing when to stop.

There is no formula. Alchemists sought methods to turn base metals into gold or silver. Writers are rather more god-like in our goals. Where there is a void, we create worlds.

1 Comment

  1. Then the writing muses just jiggle my brain around to dislodge something loose. My writing muse has gone so far as to drag me, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century (many years late) so that I can learn the craft tools of pdfs and track changes. All that sounds dreary and boring, but it is part of the trade and since I refused to deal with the movement of technology, it was the leading of the must that forced my hand. I love the image of the balsa wood sheets in a high wind. I will roll those words around on my tongue and in my head for the next several days and some day, the muse may knock them out of my brain, loose, and just in time.

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