Burning Bridge

Posted by & filed under .

RWB blogpost by Laura Kalpakian

While writing is a sedentary profession, nonetheless writers share some traits and perils with those old explorers, with crackpots and stubborn dreamers, with the grizzled and thirsty, the navigators staring stupidly at the stars on rainy nights: we none of us quite know where we are going to begin with.

Writers can imagine a semi-destination, even cherish a vision they want to achieve, just as Ponce de Leon, or Robert Scott, or Lewis and Clark. But how to get there? You can see the story from afar. You are certain there must surely be a way to tell it. But that way—that path—remains murky, overgrown, non-existent, beset sometimes by demons of self-doubt or self delusion. (One is as bad as the other.) The difference between writers and explorers is that we need not find our way back. No need to retrace the trackless waste, to make supplies last for the return trip. Writing a book is a one way journey, and once yr. there, you can burn your bridges.

“Once you’re there” doesn’t mean the book is beautifully reborn in hardcover with lovely jacket art and peppermint puffs of endorsements. “Once you’re there” means for the writer that you have arrived at a way to tell the story. It’s not the end destination, but a gratifying moment and no small achievement. You have crossed that chasm between what you imagined from afar and finding a way to get there. Once you’re there in the thick of the story, no doubt other perils beset you, but at least you can see the territory around you. Not all the paths are clear and clean and paved with yellow bricks, but you have paths to follow.

Sometimes narrative might emerge from the writer’s mind with its opening lines or paragraphs or chapters fully sprung like Venus on the half shell. But usually getting to the story is a messy business. The lines that connect you the writer, your vision to the story are sometimes spurious, weak, wrong-headed. You might be willing to admit that bridge you built across that chasm is useful, if not beautiful. But seasoned, clear-eyed revision will suggest, oh no, maybe it’s not even useful. Sometimes, having reached your territory you can see that the bridge you created to go there really belongs somewhere else. It’s not chapter one. It’s chapter three or thirty-three. Sometimes you just have to light it afire and smell the smoke.

A book that I worked on for years originally opened with a dream sequence. I always had some notion of the way the novel would go, and what I wanted it to achieve, and I wasn’t really that fond of the dream sequence (in general I dislike dream sequences) but at least it allowed me into the story. I kept it in place through many revisions. I felt a residual loyalty to the opener that gradually attenuated as the novel grew. (We’re talking a couple of years here.) I was gratified, though not really surprised, that on slicing the whole opening scene from the novel, the story improved immediately. Cutting that dream sequence also meant I could cut a whole bunch of thematic slag I’d once thought lovely and essential. It wasn’t. The book was firmer, both dramatically and thematically.

Sometimes the problem isn’t even structural, it’s just a matter of warm up. You get some words on paper with some direction in mind, and noodle along, not even realizing that you’ve veered far, far from your intended destination. Maybe you’ve gone on to something more interesting, but its relationship to the opening paragraph is dubious. In general, certainly in a shorter piece, the place you end up is usually deeper, more appealing, more satisfying than the place you start out. Sometimes you have to write your way across that chasm: the distance between the writer and the story you can see, but can’t yet articulate. Write your way across it, word for word, page for page. Not writing the story itself. Just writing your toward the story. And then when you’ve reached it and rejoiced a bit, you think: I have to trash all this? Throw all this away? All my work here is for naught? The answer to these questions is Yes. And No.

You do have to throw it away, but it is not for naught. Anything that gets you to your destination has value, whether it’s a canoe, a dogsled or on foot or horseback. You can celebrate this cut material for having been a bridge to the space, the story you really want to explore. But you do have to let it go.

Don’t always trust your opener. Once you’ve seen the territory around you, that little bridge will be diminished, and usually unequal to the scope of what you can actually achieve.

Cut it, print it up, light the corner, and give it a Viking funeral.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *