"Be messy." — George Hodgman

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Earlier this week, George Hodgman of Bettyville fame joined us via Skype at Penn. I have been teaching the idea of home this semester—what it is, how writers frame it, how every book ultimately, somehow, departs from or returns to a centering place.

(Speaking of which, please join us for the Beltran event at Penn's Kelly Writers House, March 1, 6:00 PM, when I will be joined by Reiko Rizzuto, A.S. King, and Margo Rabb—along with students past and present—to discuss this idea of home in literature.)

The winds and the rains were fierce. I had my Skype-technology jitters. My students were ready, and so were the students of dear Julia Bloch, who were joining us for the session. And, oh—George Hodgman was brilliant. He was: Looking back over Bettyville—how it began, how it evolved. Circling then pinning the definition of memoir. Speaking of his mother's love and his enduring felt need to make her proud. Pondering the nature of, and the blasting off, of personal and writerly inhibitions. Recalling the sound of conversation above the slap of flip flops.

Next George spoke about his life as an editor. The importance of stories that don't wait to get started, the importance of writers who are willing to work, the decision an editor must make, early on, about if and when to get tangled up inside a draft's sentences. And then George said this simple but remarkably important thing: Be messy (at first). The worst books are the clean, perfect books, he told us. The ones that feel safe.

Be messy.

For the past many years I've been at work (intermittently) on a book I feel could define me. It's a novel. It is a structural storytelling risk. I thought last year that I could publish this book as novel for adults. After a great disappointment, I pulled it back. Let it sit. Returned to it just this week, fear in my heart. Was it any good? Had I pumped it up in my own estimation, without any actual basis for pride?

Open the document, Beth.

Find out.

I finally did. And what I discovered was a book that was, indeed, messy. Too pretentious on some pages. Unnecessarily fantastical in covert corners. Too wishfully literary.

But. The story, the characters, the scenes—strip away the mess of the book, and, I discovered, there was a beating pulse. Despite all the mud I had slung on top of my tale, there was a glorious gleam.

I am taking this mess. I am turning it into something. I am grateful, deeply grateful, that I made such a horror in the first place. Inside these pages are complexity and promise. Inside them is my world.

I am reminded, once again, that this writing thing is, above all else, process. Clean first drafts are a constricting bore.


Lilian Nattel said...

Yes! And I'm so glad you returned to it and found energy in it.

Victoria Marie Lees said...

Bravo, Beth! Reach for your dream and hold on tight.

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