How Are Your Chapters Doing Today?
I have played around with what days to write these letters since I started, and I am really digging doing it on Sunday mornings, with that first cup of coffee, sitting in bed, with my pup snoozing next to me. I find it’s a good way to reflect on what I’ve been working on all week and also get my head set up for what’s coming up tomorrow.
Here is a dog:
Sometimes I write these letters and think: how could this possibly help anyone? It feels so small and personal and specific. All of these ideas and moments I’m documenting here, are just brief actions I’ve taken in the service of constructing a much vaster piece of art. But, as the man said, the particular is contained the universal, so I’ll share another part of the process today. And this week, I’ve been thinking about chapters.
A few days ago I went to a café and sat outside, the first sunny day we’d had in a few days. This café I like sits on a diagonal-shaped slice of land about a ten-minute drive from my house. They serve Café Bustelo, which is what I drink at home, but somehow it tastes better there. (At this point, truly, everything tastes better outside my house.) That is where I will go and sit, I decided, and think about my book. I had an idea of a thing I needed to do to it.
I printed out the second part of my book and took it with me and found a table in the sunshine. There were two handsome middle-aged men speaking Spanish next to me. This is my ideal scenario for editing: being around people, hearing them speak, feeling the comfort of their words and existence, but not understanding a damn thing they’re saying.
I turned my attention to my manuscript. Originally it was to be a collection of essays, and I would write some new material. I was imagining it to be sixty percent new material, something like that. I had written so many essays the last twenty years of my life, couldn’t I do something with them? But as time went on, and I got into the writing of the book, it became clear there needed to be much more new material, or at least that I needed to generate it, and see what I had. The words piled up.
Eventually I had written down all the stories I was willing to tell. I thought: let’s organize it, let’s take a look. Still, the whole time, I was thinking of it as an essay collection with some sort of overarching but gentle narrative. Essays can be chapters, but of course chapters aren’t necessarily essays. And now, in this big revision I am doing, it is becoming clear, most of these chapters are not meant to be essays – not classic, beautiful, pristine essays. They are chapters in a book about my life, they are stories I am telling. And they have to give way in service of the narrative. The sharp edges of these constructed essays have to become rounder and warmer in order for the big picture to work.
I’m not trying to say that an essay collection cannot form a narrative, a picture of a writer’s life. I’m just saying that the kind of book I want to write, the kinds of books I have written, tell stories in a particular kind of way. I have to stop trying to fit it into a traditional mold. That never really worked for me anyway. The most successful I have been artistically with my work has been when I let the chapters be what they need to be in the realm of the bigger book.
So what do those changes look like, when the essays give? Sometimes this means cutting out certain pieces of information entirely that already appear elsewhere in the book. Sometimes it means setting up a storyline in an earlier chapter, so that it makes sense when it shows up later in the book. There are also times when I, as a narrator, am not allowed to know things. When I need to suddenly write from a less wise place (while still being wise in the background) in order to show the possibility of growth and progress. And there are moments when I flash forward or back to scenes outside of the chapter. Playing with time, a thing I do frequently as a novelist, is trickier when it’s your own time, and it’s real.
All of these actions alter the pristine essayistic nature of the chapters. Were they to remain essays, with these changes, they could not exist on their own in the universe as successful ones. But I do not care anymore, because the chapters will now serve the book better, and I now only care about the success of the entire book.
So much of this is about creating drama and intrigue or at least not spoiling whatever kind of ending is coming. This has always made sense to me when I’m writing a novel. It has been more complicated to wrap my head around when writing a memoir. But it’s worth trying to figure out, how to make those chapters live and breathe together, and do interesting things to entertain the reader, intrigue them, captivate them, keep them reading. I want to make a piece of art, but I also want to make a piece of entertainment. How the chapters work together, how they give and take and bend to my will, is a crucial component.
So I sat there that day, and bent that chapter to my will. I cut out a piece of information and marked that it would be moved to another chapter. I turned a past tense feeling into present tense. I cut out an idea that would have never occurred to me in the moment. And I wrote a riff at the end of the chapter where I asked the reader some questions, because I wanted to signal to the reader that I knew they were there with me, that we were in this book together.
Eventually the handsome men left the cafe, separately, both of them driving off in their trucks. Goodbye, I thought. I will never know your stories and secrets. Then I returned my attention to what was in front of me. The stories from my life. Chapter by chapter.
I offer this thinking up to you today and ask you how your chapters are doing: are they friends; are they lovers; are they squabbling; do they work together quietly, nicely, side by side; are they tossing a ball back and forth in the backyard; are they lined up in a row by height or in alphabetical order; are they dressed all in neutrals so you can’t tell them apart; are they seated around the dinner table enjoying a good meal; are they riding next to each other on a bus, ignoring each other while staring at their cellphones; are they doing a kickline together; are they sitting around a fire pit in a circle, shooting the shit, telling their favorite stories, making each other laugh till the sun comes up?
How are your chapters doing today? Have you checked in on them lately?
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to Kundiman.
This notion of rounding up our chapters is right on time for me. I’m starting a new project and I feel like my chapters are hiding all over the house, waiting for me to find them. A few might even be hiding out in the neighborhood—specifically in the Marigny and lower French Quarter where my characters lived in the 1930s and ‘40s. I’m putting on my chapter-hunting outfit this week. Thank you for the inspiration. It matters!
This was so helpful to me right now. And inspiring. I created an essay collection for my MFA and was thinking of it as a memoir in visual essays and now 6 months out, I'm thinking about feedback I got from an editor who was part of the final review as I consider whether or not I want to try to make a book-length project of it, and, like should it remain essays as "chapters" or should they turn into real chapters and how would I do that? I should just, like, try it, right? There is no right or wrong. And I won't know until I see. Which is what I learned from this post. So, THANK YOU.