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The mess, the madness

We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have.
Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.
The rest is the madness
of art.”  —Henry James

stack of papersI’m in the process of gathering rough drafts, editors’ letters, research and other materials for my poems, novels, and picture books, putting them in cardboard boxes, and sending them to the Special Collections of my alma mater, Gettysburg College. In addition to the final drafts of each work, this includes twenty-two years-worth of scribbles, hastily typed pages, bad drawings, coffee stains, photo copies, emails, and other assorted goodies. This takes some time, as you might imagine. But, as it turns out, it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to re-visit my very messy, random, and non-linear process of composing.

This past week, for example, I went through the earliest notes and drafts of my fourth novel, Kaleidoscope Eyes, published by Knopf in 2009.  Now you would think . . . given that this was my twenty-fourth book . . . that I might have stumbled upon some method to this madness called “writing.” Alas, it’s all too clear that I have not. If anything, it appears that my process has become more complicated than it ever was. The final version of Kaleidoscope Eyes features a 13-year old female narrator, Lyza Bradley. As I looked back over the early notes for this book, however, I realized that I’d forgotten about a  few of its earlier incarnations. I’d forgotten, for example, that I’d started the first draft in prose and that I’d used the alternating narrative voices of several of the main characters. Later, I switched to a single male narrator, Luke Bradley, and still later I put the story into free verse poetry. Finally, having settled on the poetic form, I changed to a female narrator, Lyza, and made several of the original poems shorter. I eliminated some characters (an older brother), kept some others (father and older sister) and added still others (Malcolm and Carol Ann.)

Sometimes I feel badly when students ask me to explain my “writing process.” I always try to explain the best I can but, at its core, my method remains pretty random: I try something. I see how it feels, how it sounds. I go a bit further. If it isn’t working I try something else. Repeat this dozens of times. Eventually, I might have a good book. And if I don’t, I try again.

2 thoughts on “The mess, the madness”

  1. So glad you are finding the time to do this, Jen! And so happy that you are getting as much from the process as our patrons will when they access your papers!

  2. That HAS been a great thing for me to do . . . both practically (for the sake of my poor over-stuffed office) and also professionally. It’s made me take stock of the paths I’ve taken–or not taken–in my decades-long journey as a writer. In fact, I just dropped off yet another box w/ Carolyn S. yesterday!


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