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The Scaffolding Came Down
Kristen came out from Florida this past weekend to help me get my backyard in shape. She bought the tickets almost immediately after my dog passed away. Because she is a good friend. She said she would come out, we would clean up the yard together, and then we would put his ashes in the ground. (This sounds somber, but actually we had an excellent time.)
I had decided also to plant a tree over him, so we spent some time talking about what kind of tree it should be. This led to a conversation about writing (everything leads to a conversation about writing with us) and Kristen talked about how she adds azaleas all the time in her work. Azaleas and palm scrubs. My Florida friend. I love to put in an American elm or a willow tree or, now that I live in New Orleans, a live oak. Big trees that offer you shade.
An interesting thing to think about: which natural elements show up in your work all the time.
Then we went shopping. To Lowe’s, for the basics, a place to do some early contemplation. Then to Harold’s, a beautiful little plant store in my neighborhood, where all the cats were high from the catnip plants, and we looked at all the native trees and I thought an azalea sounded nice, indeed. I wanted something hardy, that would last forever, and that I, with my less-than-green thumb, would have a hard time killing. And there would be pretty flowers. I liked the idea of it blooming every year around Mardi Gras, too.
Think on it overnight, said Kristen, but I already knew that’s what I wanted.
In the morning, we went to the plant sale at City Park, where those plant people were ruthless, I tell you, but I snagged a conversation piece azalea. I cannot stop thinking about the woman who walked past us all while we stood in line waiting to get into the sale, one single plant in her hand, announcing to us in a sing-song voice, “Early bird gets the calla lily.” I also bought a new rose bush, just because.
Then we strategized and dug and cleaned and organized and trimmed and tidied and breathed new beautiful life into the backyard and even though it was mostly the same, it still felt different. I weed-whacked and planted some new smaller plants and replanted a gardenia in a different corner of the yard so it could get more sun. Kristen painted my shower and re-hung the backyard lights and trimmed the neighbor’s loquat tree that hangs over the fence. Enormous, small changes.
It was a good weekend.
The day Kristen left, I had an idea of how to change my novel. I had spent nearly two years writing this book and organizing it in a specific way: by decades. But I realized that morning that particular structure was holding me back from the way the book really wanted to be. I had outgrown the structure. It had acted as scaffolding when I needed it. It had made me feel safe, knowing that it was there to hold me steady. A place to return, structure. I could write whatever I wanted as long as I abided by it.
But now I could see how the book could be broken into new parts, newly relevant starts and stops for these characters. The way we end each section of the book is important. It was exactly the same story — truly, not much changed in the way of plot because of it — but it landed differently because of the way the chapters were grouped together.
And it also highlighted some problems that existed in some of the chapters that went unnoticed in earlier drafts because of where the chapters were located. Sometimes they were wedged in between chapters that were either showier or just more clearly defined. But if a chapter was newly hanging out at the end of a section of a book, then it needed to hit all its marks.
It would be a new way for the reader to experience the book. Think about how a lot of people read. We read to the end of the chapter, or we read to the end of Part 1. We sit with what we have just read. What do you want people to sit with?
I got up at 5 am the past three days because I felt like that was when my brain was going to work best. Ready to make all the changes. I worked into the afternoon. Then a new character emerged from nowhere and deposited herself in the pages. In a way, I am only just starting to write this book. Now that I have removed the scaffolding. I was just so happy with how it was turning out that I just stayed in it all day long and thought about it at night, too. It was a pleasant, obsessive feeling that I could not possibly sustain every day of my life but was fun for the week. And now I have a new draft which I have sent to readers. So we shall see.
Do you have any scaffolding that has been hanging out for too long in your work? I don’t think we can ever see it until it’s ready to come down. But what a satisfying moment it is when we arrive there.
It’s good day to say to yourself: it is all part of the process.
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 Louisiana Trans Advocates.