The Mess and the Cleanup

Hi friends.

First, let me tell you that today I have launched the cover of the book which I have been writing for the past year. You can see it here or here. I love it hard, and I am so excited for you to read it someday.

And I wanted to say hello to all the new subscribers. Usually this is a newsletter about writing, and then, once a year, it turns into the #1000wordsofsummer project, where we all write 1000 words a day for two weeks straight. That day is coming soon: the project starts again on May 31 and runs through June 13.

A little bit about me: I live in New Orleans. I’ve published seven books of fiction. I have a memoir coming out in January. I sold my first book in 2004 and have dedicated my life to my work ever since. Because it is the most fun I will ever have.

I write these letters because I love writing so much and it’s changed my life forever and I genuinely get so much pleasure from it and I want the same joy for you. I have always thought of #1000wordsofsummer as a little bit imaginary because it’s just me, sitting in my house, writing letters to thousands of people I will never meet, and hoping that they get something out of it, and are able to do their own kind of imaginary work for themselves. And yet I know there is something very real and substantial to all of us coming together in this shared brainwaves kind of way.

People take on different strategies for this project. Some people know exactly what they’re going to write: Chapters 10-16 of the first draft of their young adult novel. A character sketch each day from a list they’ve drawn. As much of their essay collection as they can squeeze in while the baby’s sleeping. The last fourteen thousand words of the novel they’ve been working on for two years and if they don’t finish it now, they’re going to lose their goddamn minds.

And some people have no idea what they’re going to write when they sit down except for: A story idea I once had. A character I can’t shake from my head. A memory about my mother. There are worse places to start.

Story, character, memory.

Writing a big mess of words is what I intend on doing this year. Writing it, not thinking about it one bit, just getting it all down on the page. I can fix it later, I can always fix it later. But I can’t fix air. I can’t fix nothing.

From the New Yorker interview with John Swartzwelder.

Speaking of fixing things, I’m in the midst of copy edits at the moment, which I’ve been digging into furiously for a few days now. I wake up in the morning and make a strong Café Bustelo with a little bit of honey in it to cut the bitterness, and then I settle back into bed. I don’t look at the internet, I don’t scroll through my phone. I read a little bit of something smart, a book with good sentences, to focus my brain. (I’ve been finishing up The Transit of Venus this week.) Maybe I write a few thoughts into my notebook, just to get whatever has gathered in the night out of my head.

And then I get down to work.

I think it’s helpful to look at the copy edit phase as a new draft. I haven’t spent time with the book for two months, but I’ve been writing down notes of points that I want to make sure I made along the way, just from my memory of the book. Some people just view copy edits as a time to check the work they’ve already done, but I look at it as the last chance to make it even better.

It’s an unusual experience, to go from editing novels all these years to a memoir. A copy editor can’t argue with the facts of the book, really. The logic of the choices you made. Nor can they question your voice, like they might with a character in a novel. It’s all true, and it’s all you. They can question the clarity of your explanations if they don’t follow you. They can help you explain things better to the reader. But mostly, they have to trust that this is what you did, and this is who you are.

So my main goal for this draft is to make sure I’m landing the endings of everything, every paragraph break, every section break, every chapter break, the wrap-up to parts 1, 2 and 3, and, of course, the conclusion of the book. I like the idea of the endings being little slaps in the face, making sure the reader is still paying attention.

And I’m reading a lot of it out loud again. I want to make sure there is no shame in my sentences.

I am also noticing with this draft that in my effort to tell the story smoothly I had perhaps cut out too much in just a few places — some of the warmth and humor and heart and messiness was gone. It’s not a lie, what I wrote down, but I had performed a kind of an execution of the truth, both in that I gamely executed the storytelling, but also I murdered the truth a little bit in the cuts. So I’m writing in a little bit more of a different kind of truth. Just a dash of it. But enough.

I don’t actually believe in making Perfect Art. The imperfections are part of humanity. And I actually think you’ll learn something about me from the mistakes I make. That my vulnerabilities are an offering of a kind.

But I want to get really fucking close to perfect.

The mess and the cleanup. The spectrum of the creative process. Do you know where you are right now in your process? Are you ready to get your hands dirty?


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 Krewe of Red Beans.