I finished the edits on the first typeset draft of my memoir the other day. This was my last chance to make significant changes to the book. The last time I would print out a copy and take a red pen to it. Every draft is tricky, but this is the one where the book is so tightly written, I fear I might be fucking things up by moving a comma in the wrong direction. I always end up texting sentences to friends and asking them if they make sense, because I can’t be sure anymore, I’ve looked at them so many times.
But it’s also the draft where I can genuinely examine the work and read entire blocks, pages, chapters of text that I love, and recognize how finished it is in so many ways. These drafts are alive always, everything could always be pushed one way or another, and knowing this shows me that no piece of art can be absolutely perfect, and I find that deeply comforting. But I can see what I’ve accomplished at this stage. I can see how it moves and swings and conveys what I wanted it to convey. I can see how it’s a piece of art. And then it begins to feel done.
And then, at last, after this final draft, I archive it. I used to organize it more but now it’s just dumping stacks of papers into a box, sealing it up with tape, and putting in the attic.
I have become a little less precious about my work as time has gone on and I encourage everyone to do the same — unless the aesthetics of your preciousness is one of your defining characteristics, in which case I wouldn’t want to take that away from you. But, for me, the book is the only truly important record of my creative output for the outside world. I recognize and respect why people love to comb through archives. But it does feel like the book should be enough for everyone. Even if it is not quite enough for me.
I have felt like everything is temporary or ephemeral for so long, yet now there seems to be a record of it all anyway. Just because I delete all my tweets once a week doesn’t mean it isn’t on a server somewhere. If, on the way home from the bar late at night, I walk down an empty road singing a little tune quietly to myself, thinking no one saw me, chances are a camera situated up high on a streetlight captured it. Maybe just my mouth moving, but still, I was singing like a fool. The world will have its way with me no matter what I do so I have to choose what counts just for me. What I choose to have in the attic is what I choose to make important.
Once I dated a man for a long time and then we broke up and after things had been over for a while he gave me a diary he had kept of letters he had written me but never sent. I read it twice and then never again. This was more than a decade ago so I can’t tell you much of its contents — though of course I remember a few things. I threw away nearly everything else he gave to me but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of that, because it felt like a piece of art to me. It’s in the attic, too. I suppose more than anything I just like that it’s there.
It’s hard for me to imagine ever going through all the boxes in the attic, but I must admit it is at least a little bit important for me during my time on earth that these messy drafts of books and life exist safely somewhere. I don’t need to ever look at them again. I just need to know they’re there. If they’re there, it means I’ve done it before. I’ve written before. I’ve loved before. So I must be able to do it again someday. Evidence. Actual facts. I’m alive.
The newsletter will be back in about three weeks. Author Emma Eisenberg is starting another round of #1000wordsofsummer today with some other writers if you want some twitter accountability.
Hope you’re having a nice summer.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also 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). This week’s donation went to support New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.