Today, Cathy and I cleaned up our landscaping. We deadheaded rose bushes, trimmed shrubs, pulled weeds. Just a little tidying up on a beautiful day in early summer.
I’ve reached the point of the year when my teaching duties at Ohio State are finished until late August, and I’m trying to get back to a novel-in-progress, one I had to leave unattended once Spring Semester swallowed up all my time. It’s been my experience that writing a novel requires an uninterrupted stretch of days during which I immerse myself in its world. Living in that world with minimal distraction creates momentum. It also deepens my understanding of the characters and their situations. Sometimes after an absence, as is the case now, the novel doesn’t want to let me back in. It feels like an artificial object rather than an organic world. I see too clearly the seams of its stitching. Beginning to write again feels clumsy. Where is this book going? What drew me to the story in the first place? Where am I in this novel? How does it connect to something that matters to me? These are some of the questions I confront to help me ease my way back in with the hopes of getting to a point where it feels like the novel is writing me rather than the other way around.
The work Cathy and I did in our landscaping took minimal effort—a snip here, a tug there—but such small shaping often sparks more intense efforts. Maybe that bush needs to go. Maybe those day lilies need to be separated. Maybe this space would be better served with a new planting. So it is with returning to a novel. Devoting your efforts to small changes can draw you back into the world you’re creating. Sometimes this happens on a very small scale. For instance, I found myself the other day just fiddling with sentences, rewriting them to make them stronger. Sometimes all it takes is making a different word choice or correcting the punctuation. These small touches increase your intimacy with the text. Little by little, it starts to live again.
I also found myself tinkering with the timeline of a sequence of scenes, moving one here and another there to make a clearer chronology. Clarifying the sequence led me to write new scenes. Suddenly, I was inside my main characters, letting them surprise me as they moved through their world. I was starting to feel what they felt, and I was understanding why they did what they did.
The lesson in all this? When you’re picking up a project that you’ve left for way too long, lower your expectations. Start small. Direct your attention to things that are easily revised, things like sentences and chronology. The stakes in the writing process will be lower for you, thereby giving you more accessibility. As you go, you’ll feel your momentum begin to build. Before you know it, you’ll be writing at a brisk pace. You’ll be living inside your novel instead of experiencing it from the outside. “Great things are not done by impulse,” Van Gogh said, “but by a series of small things brought together.” When you’re coming back to something in progress, something you’ve lost touch with, let the re-acquaintance begin with small steps. As the great college basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”