October 04, 2009

Tear It Down

If I owe you something--an email, a call, a kidney for transplant--I am sorry. For the last two weeks I have been doing battle with an article that, for lack of better phrasing, has been kicking my ass. This will be the third rewrite, each time approaching the topic from a totally different angle that requires fresh research. The good news: if all goes well, it will be a chance to pay tribute to one of my favorite DC landmarks in the pages of the (newly revamped) Post Magazine. The bad news: my writerly ego has taken a hit. It's been a while since I heard that something written to order was, well, unusable.

Friends in journalism tell me that this is simply how it goes. Editors change their minds. Stories break that change your story, and can't be anticipated. You go into a real-world scenario thinking your reportage will give you one angle, only to have it bank in another direction entirely. You build it, you tear it down (or someone triggers the TNT for you), and you build it up again. I'd been sheltered from this because the XX Files were more in the vein of creative nonfiction that just happened to appear in a newspaper, versus newspaper writing.

When I was in graduate school at American University, we had an infamous incident in which a well-known Visiting Writer guest-led a workshop that was looking at, among other things, a chapter from the novel of a popular student in the program. Within the first three minutes of the workshop--atom bomb dropping--the Visiting Writer announced that the author simply had to change POV if the piece was ever going to work. This is not a short story we were talking about; this was 200 pages of polished thesis manuscript.

Once the workshop was over, everyone told the author that the Visiting Writer had been snobby and obnoxious, and that he should disregard her critique. We pointed to her sloppy handle on the story's details (keeping character's names straight, etc.) as evidence that she'd probably barely read it. The student kept his POV and, happy ending, the book was published a short while later.

We had good reason to respond the way we did. But, let's face it, we would have responded that way even if we HADN'T had good reason. We have an a perverse loyalty to our prose in the creative nonfiction world; we are quick to rationalize logical gaps or emotional ambiguities as part of honoring the "truth" of the experience, or as part of a stylistic tic. I am coming to realize that this defensive posture is not sustainable in journalism or freelancing. In that world you have to be willing to tear it down, even if that means wasting thousands of words.

Although I think the Visiting Writer probably did give the MS a too-cursory read, I don't see how that differs from the glance of most editors or agents sifting through a slush pile. Just because she was obnoxious didn't mean she was wrong. The harshest truth: just because the novel was published as it was doesn't mean it wouldn't have been a better novel if it had used another perspective.

Growing pains. They suck. But you get to stand a little taller afterwards.

Mark your calendars, if you live in the DC area: this THURSDAY (October 8) I am hosting a supercool reading at the Arts Club of Washington with J. C. Hallman. More tomorrow!


Valerie Loveland said...

Unfortunately, we've all been there, with the wrong POV.

Writing is my favorite roller coaster.

Giulia said...

Oh my. Sorry. Yes, that's what happens every damn day (hour) in journalism.

I just took out detail of my longish time at AU. Forgot that I pledged myself to silence unless it is useful. Didn't realize you were there.

Changing POV. Just off top of head, I can think of three very well-written & successful novels/short stories that only worked with a POV change. I argued against one of them--a loved one's draft. Good thing he didn't listen to me...for I was wrong. I was a convert to giving it a go ever after.

Cheers & a productive week to you...