It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best Gruyère cheese–the one earning the lofty “AOP” designation in Switzerland–merges both morning and evening milk.
The poet in me likes to think this means both the cow’s morning cheerfulness and her late afternoon pensiveness swirl into the same vat. It’s more likely that mixing last night’s milk into the morning batch gives a head start to the culturing process. The cheese is then aged five months up to a year, another step which lends Gruyère its trademark complexity–sweet, salty, and nutty.
William Trevor, one of my literary idols, was famous for penning a short story and putting it away for as much as six months before re-reading and revising. Now that takes discipline! It’s also a testament to his productivity. I’m sure he had so many pieces in various stages of production that it never bothered him to shelve something for a time.
Jane Austen is another writer known for her reflection. Pride and Prejudice took many years to write. And this delightful novel started out with the title of “First Impressions.” It was only after months of revision and consideration did she settle on the final name of the book that we all know and love so much today.
Both Trevor and Austen, although very different writers, made a name for themselves through complex characters and subtle humor, two elements that can only flourish with adequate rumination and revision.
The next time you finish a story, poem, or essay, try putting it away for a little while. At least give it a good night’s sleep. Fan those first flames of enthusiasm (morning milk) with a healthy dose of maturation (evening milk). I bet you’ll end up with a final product as nuanced and delicious as Gruyère! Bon Appétit!
Last year I had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian and The Swan Thieves, speak at the National Book Festival in D.C. about her personal writing process. She said that unlike some writers, she never plots too far ahead. Instead, she lets the story tell itself and trusts that all ends will fall into place eventually. While crouching on the grass in the heat, and trying not to worry about the camel cricket just inches away from me, I remember admiring her faith.
Just as this picture demonstrates, the trick for me is balancing my knowledge of the present moment with the trail I’ve got to leave behind me. It’s not easy to remember to plant nuance and clues for the reader. For the fiction writer can leave very little to chance. If you drag a toe in the sand, there needs to be a reverse action that makes sense for the reader.
Now at work on my second novel, and thoroughly enjoying the new characters and complications introduced into the familiar town of Yatesville, I still work from a rough outline. It’s at the top of my file and serves as a guidepost of where I hope to end up. Not sure that’s the best way but it works for me. It’s like my little yellow bucket of shells. It’s a catch-all for the tidbits I can’t bear to leave behind.
The magnificent novel, The Imperfectionists, by debut author Tom Rachman, is a treasure trove of humanity. It is a book to be read over and over again. From loneliness to heartbreak, the author lays bare the universal emotions that unite us all. And yet, at its conclusion, I chanced upon another delight. In the back of the book, the author is interviewed by none other than Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite philosopher/authors.
Not only does this interview deliver great insights into the novel, but Malcolm, known for his nonfiction books, The Tipping Point and Blink among others, shares his insights on fiction:
“In a good book, we get an intimate and nuanced picture of someone–to the point where our own prejudices are completely displaced by the world created by the author. That’s an extraordinarily important kind of social discipline: It reminds us that an important part of what it means to be human is to replace our snap judgments about people with the empirical evidence they offer us.”
Va-va-voom! Upon reading this, I felt my heart swell with happiness. Malcolm had just articulated one of the many reasons that fiction appeals to so many of us. In this multi-tasking, technology-driven world, reading fiction takes on a new urgency. It’s not just leisure anymore, as Malcolm asserts, it’s social discipline. I’ll take that one step further: reading fiction is our duty!