Madeleine Robins May 21st, 2009
I have been keyboarding old stories of mine to put up on bookviewcafe.com (you all remember bookviewcafe.com, right? fiction, free or for a nominal charge, from some of the best writers around. And me, too). I have to keyboard the stories, all of them published elsewhere, because 1) some of them were published before I had a computer, and no electronic file ever existed, or 2) I lost the electronic file when my hard disk was unexpectedly replaced last year*.
It’s been interesting. After I get a work in print form I generally read it once, then don’t read it again unless I have to do so for some reason. And re-typing is not just re-reading: the act triggers all the editorial impulses that are generally in play when I’m working on a final edit of a story. Do I change stuff? Leave it alone because it’s now an Historical Document? Six of one and eight of the other? Generally I don’t change what I’ve already written, except when I do. But retyping has been necessary, and I’ve learned a number of useful things during that process.
First: I wasn’t a terrible writer when I started out doing this stuff. There are some sentences (curiously, they’re often sentences I remembered being very proud of at the time they were written) which now strike me as forced, arty, too cute. But over all the word-work is solid, and the stories genuinely affect me. This is as it should be: if I don’t pull my own chains, how am I going to pull anyone else’s?
Second: I wish I had pulled out all those too cute, forced, arty sentences that I loved so well then. I still have sentences I love when I’m writing, but I tend to love them, now because they say exactly what I want, simply, or they capture the character clearly, not because I was showing off with words.
Third: I look at some of the stories and wonder where they came from. I remember writing them all, and the genesis of some of them is very clear. “Willie,” a story about a mad scientist who raises the monster as his own son, was a direct result of seeing the Kenneth Branagh Frankenstein at a point in my life when I had a toddler in the house. Others–”Papa’s Gone A-Hunting”, for example–appear to have come from the everywhere into the here. I didn’t have kids when I wrote it, but the story is about an astronaut’s wife who is having a hard time adjusting after a miscarriage. And it’s about friendship, too. Also pottery. But why I wrote this story, what its source was in my own head, is now a mystery to me. “Cuckoo,” grew out of a workshop where a stray comment about something else–”The gargoyle speaks!”–sparked the story about a woman who adopts a foundling child who turns out to be not quite human.
Fourth: some basic themes emerge. I doubt anyone will ever write scholarly papers about my work, so it’s left to me to note that, even before I was a parent, parenthood seemed to loom in my writing. So does loneliness. So does making your own family. So does the different forms that love takes. Given that I got my start writing romances, it’s perhaps natural that some of the stories–”Somewhere in Dreamland Tonight,” for example, have a strong romantic undertone. Others don’t. Don’t ask me: I only write here.
I’m going to keep keyboarding and adding stuff to my bookshelf at BVC until I have all my old stories there. Partly, yes, I want them to be written. Partly, also, because they’re pretty good, and I’m pleased about that. And partly because I’m discovering some real pleasures in retyping and closely re-examining work that is–some of it, anyway–now old enough to vote.
It’s a useful process; I recommend it to you.
*Doesn’t that sound like invaders swarmed into my home, tied me up, replaced my hard drive, and left? Nah: I brought my laptop in for a keyboard issue, didn’t back up anything but my most recent work files, and…they replaced the hard drive. Still not sure why it needed to be done, but, O well.