Writing lessons learned (yet again)

I'm currently writing a final paper for my Chekhov class (which has been WONDERFUL). My teacher and I agreed that it would be a good exercise for me to dig really deep into a single story rather than try to survey a batch of stories to prove some conjecture or other. As a writer of fiction myself, I was more interested in reverse-engineering a story to see how Chekhov constructed it.

I chose a story we had not read called "On Official Business" (Garnett translation). On the surface, it's a story in which nothing happens except that people wind up as depressed and miserable as when they started. But on really picking the story apart to see how Chekhov wrote it -- the narrative techniques he uses, his deployment of imagery, sound, and repeated phrases -- well, it became a rather rich stew.

I thought, aha!, I will now be able to get this paper off my plate early and not have to worry about it late in the semester. Ha-ha! Not so! My first priority was to distribute a questionnaire to my neighborhood as part of my master's project, and the logistics of that proved surprisingly overwhelming. (As with almost all master's work, it isn't hard, it just takes lots of time.)

I started making notes per my favorite writing book, Thinking on Paper, and quickly had 8 pages. [1] Then I floundered around looking for some sort of structure that I could slot my ideas into, looking for headings that were "mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive," but found that approach just generated more text.

At this point (last night, in fact) I decided it was time to stem the flow and remind myself of some writing truths I picked up from here and there:

  • If everything's important, nothing's important. This is a staple of technical writing. I was trying to put everything I knew into this paper, all of my notes -- with the effect that the really big points were getting lost.
  • Kill your darlings. Faulkner's famous piece of writing advice. In my working life, whenever I've had trouble writing an article or column that I felt strongly about, deleting the text I loved best allowed the piece to fit neatly into its allotted word count and allowed the other ideas to fall naturally into place. I'm too in love with some of the points I'm making or the language I'm using.
  • Create a title, just to get started. A title creates a focus for ideas; fiction writers or poets may pick a toneword or image or piece of music that expresses the effect they're after and that helps them choose the words and images that will cluster around it. I re-read the Chekhov story again, started making more notes, and hit on the title" "Dreams and Reality in Chekhov's 'On Official Business'". It's helping me decide what to leave out, which is as important as what I put in.
  • Write more than you need. As the authors of Thinking on Paper say, use the words you have to attract the words you want. You're not under any obligation to use them.
  • The sooner I get the first draft done, the more fun I have. Rewriting is re-thinking, revising and editing is more fun than squeezing out that first draft. When I re-read what I wrote, new phrases, new ideas, better choices come unbidden to my head.
  • It's only supposed to be a 12-page paper, for crying out loud. But, I'd decided to let the paper be as long as it wants to be. I'm enjoying spending time on this project and discovering all the clues Chekhov put into the story. However, time and energy constraints -- and the patience of my professor -- should also be respected!

The blog Stupid Motivational Tricks has really smart, tough advice on the business of academic writing. One post very cogently said that you don't write a paper, you write for an hour. Just focus on this piece or this point for an hour or so, get that done, and then move to the next.

For this morning's writing session, I want to focus on the character Lzyhin and draw together some of the criticism related to his epiphany. In other writing sessions, I want to tackle the secondary characters, Chekhov's use of imagery and sound to create a netting that holds the story together, and the circularity of the story's beginning and ending. That's all way too much to write about in a short paper, even given 8 uninterrupted hours. But I can get each piece done and, as Jonathan Mayhew points out, even a mediocre week of writing ends in getting some writing done, and that's the bottom line.

[1] I created a PDF summarizing the book -- and other bits of writing advice -- in my first class at SILS in 2006. That historical provenance out of the way, here's a link to the PDF.