Joan Didion’s Cure for Bankrupt Mornings

Serendipity rules: I read this while I was working on “Restarting.” These days I don’t keep a notebook, but opening the work in progress seems to fill a similar function. Whatever works!

The Daily Post

Joan Didion in 2005. Photo by Kathy Willens/Associated Press Joan Didion in 2005. Photo by Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Sometimes words fly from your fingers into the keyboard, the ink runs from your pen in a continuous flow, and your imagination fills the screen or page as if by magic. Sometimes when you sit down to write, inspiration is absent or obstinate, hiding and refusing to surface. American author Joan Didion refers to these times as “bankrupt mornings.” She counsels writers on keeping a notebook as a prophylactic against truant inspiration:

See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world…

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I can revise, rewrite, and edit pretty much any time I’m awake, but for writing, especially early-draft writing, especially writing long and scary projects (like Wolfie, my novel in progress), I’m best in the morning, in the hour or two or three after I wake up.

I’m braver in the morning. I’m less easily distracted by the voices chattering inside my head and by whatever I’m supposed to do that day.

For several recent weeks my early-morning writing time was taken up by work, editing for pay and on deadline — my livelihood.

Another thing: When I’m working on a long and scary project, my mind is usually mulling it over while I’m out walking with my dog, or dropping off to sleep at night, or waking up in the morning. Mental logjams break up when I’m nowhere near my pens or my laptop.

During those several recent weeks, the jobs I was working on took up semi-permanent residence in my head. That’s what my mind kept mulling when I was out walking, or driving, or dropping off to sleep.

Blank paper is scary, but it's full of potential. (That's the scary part.)

Blank paper is scary, but it’s full of potential. (That’s the scary part.)

In short, for about three weeks I did no work on the novel. I barely even blogged.

How to get back in the groove?

Starting is easy (ha ha ha). Blank pages are scary but they’re full of potential.

I’d recently started a second draft. The not-quite complete first draft is more than 225 pages long. (First draft = first draft prime: the real first draft is in longhand, and I always do a little revising as I’m typing it into Word.) When I tried to recall it, it was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

More to the point, I was sure that if I actually looked at it, I would realize it was crap. I have had this problem before. It’s why when I’m working on a long and scary project I look at it every day. Five minutes is enough. I don’t have to write anything. I just have to open the file and look at it.

Once I’ve opened it, I always find something to fiddle with, and after I’ve done a little fiddling, I nearly always write something new.

Wolfie‘s title character is a dog. So far the only cat in the story is Schrödinger’s, and of course I don’t know if that cat is alive or dead, real or unreal. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment hypothesized a cat in a closed box with a vial of lethal radioactive material. The vial may or may not have broken; the cat may be alive or dead. I, outside the box, don’t know what has happened inside the box until I open it. Is the cat alive or dead?

I, sitting at my laptop, am dead certain the novel in progress is crap. If I actually look at it, I will know for sure it is crap and then what will I do with the rest of my life?

But it never works that way. It’s always

looking -> fiddling -> writing

After I’d read a few pages of my second draft, the seed of a new scene took root in my head. The scene comes much later in the novel. I sketched it out in longhand then went back to reading.

So why the dead certainty that the writing has turned to crap in my absence? Interesting question, but it’s going to have to wait. I’m writing.

The moving hand writes and a scene takes root.

The moving hand writes and a scene takes root.



My Characters, My Selves

The other day a writer-editor friend on Facebook posted a quote from Truman Capote: “You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.”

An interesting discussion ensued. The first comment took issue with the word “blame.” So do I. But characters come out of a writer’s head somehow, even when they’re based on real people. I’m not my characters and my characters aren’t me, but whatever my characters do or say rises in my mind, travels down my arms, and is transmitted to paper or screen by my fingers.

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” as the old guy said — I’m a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

I’m not my characters, my characters aren’t me, but I’ve imagined them. I’ve brought them to some kind of life.

Creating characters is probably the weirdest thing about writing fiction or plays. It’s totally juju. Joan of Arc’s voices don’t seem strange to me. I sometimes wonder if I might stumble off the edge and forget that my characters are characters. What if I ventured into my fictional world and couldn’t find my way back?

Can writers create believable characters if we don’t have the seeds of those characters in our heads? I suspect not. Whether we dare acknowledge and nurture those seeds into fully developed characters is a whole other question. A character in my novel in progress is a man who has sexually abused his stepdaughter and may do so again. He’s not a viewpoint character. I don’t want to get into his head, and I’m not sure I could.

Actually, now that I think of it, what I’m really afraid of is that I can get into his head. This fellow has appeared in a couple of scenes already. He acts like a trial lawyer at the family dinner table. His wife steps gingerly to avoid triggering his temper. Hmm. I recognize this. I grew up with something similar. I learned from my father how to intimidate people with words.


That’s me on the right, ca. 1993, in rehearsal. I was playing a rather timid nursing-home volunteer. Words came out of my mouth in an English accent that isn’t mine. I wasn’t her, but we definitely had a connection.

Characters often do things that their creators would never do, and say things that their creators don’t believe, or wouldn’t say in public if they did. Do authors really hide behind despicable characters to say the despicable things they believe but don’t dare say under their own names? I’m sure it happens, but I’m equally sure that if you want clues to what the author believes, you have to look at the whole work, not just the words or deeds of one or two characters.

Good actors can be so persuasive playing despicable characters. They have to connect with some despicable kernel in themselves to be that persuasive. When they’re really persuasive, viewers may feel an unsettling connection with that despicable character. Writers both create the characters and watch them in action. That can be pretty unsettling too.

When a really horrendous act is reported on the news, a common response is “how could anybody do something like that?” Me, I’m immediately working out a hypothetical trajectory in my head: how did this person get from birth to the point where he (it’s usually a he, but not always) could do this terrible thing? Into the cauldron of my mind go whatever sketchy details are available and everything I’ve read, heard, or experienced about, say, war, poverty, hopelessness, anger, addiction, fanaticism, denial, the way that humans tend to get swept away by what the other humans around them are doing . . .

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. I’m a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

I’m still having a hard time with that abusive stepfather.


Editing Workshop, 3

This one’s about sentences.

I just finished copyediting a long nonfiction book on a tight schedule. The author has many years of high-pressure writing experience, but this is his first book. The manuscript felt like it was a couple of drafts short of final — not uncommon when a rush to deadline is involved. A glaring symptom of this was sloppy sentences. If sentences come out sloppy in early drafts, it’s no big deal. You’ll clean them up when you start revising — right? right??

In this particular manuscript, the author probably didn’t have the time to make them clearer or more effective. So yours truly the copyeditor did it, pruning some elements, rearranging others, and querying whatever I couldn’t figure out either from context or from a quick Google search.

There are plenty of books out there on how to construct a sentence. You know the basics: subjects, verbs, and objects, phrases and clauses. The tricky thing is that sentences can be grammatically impeccable and at the same time unclear, ambiguous, or downright misleading.

Here are some hints on how to make sentences more effective, whether you’re writing, revising your own work, or editing someone else’s.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Sentences are like clotheslines: they tend to droop in the middle. In the middle of a long sentence, the reader’s attention starts to wander. So if you’re trying to get across an important point or detail, don’t bury it in the middle. Placed at the beginning and the end, it’s more likely to catch the reader’s attention, and to connect with the sentences before and after.

This is also true of paragraphs, by the way. Paragraphs that take up a whole page of text are daunting. KEEP OUT! they say. Or maybe WELCOME TO THE LABYRINTH.

What poets do with line and stanza breaks, prose writers can do with sentences and paragraphs.

I love long loopy sentences, but when one long loopy sentence follows another and another and another, nothing stands out. It’s also easier for subjects and verbs, or nouns and pronouns, to come adrift from each other. Confusion often results.

The closer together words are in a sentence, the stronger — and clearer — the relationship between them. The opposite is also true: the further apart they are, the more tenuous the connection. Here’s an example adapted from the book I just edited:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

I skidded to a halt at the end of the first sentence: who? what? when?

It took me a few moments to sort it out: It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and what happened in 2005 wasn’t the publishing but the requesting and receiving of permission. (It was made clear elsewhere that the work was published in 2008.) In the second sentence, the parenthetical “in an interview” unnecessarily separates subject from verb.

Here is my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

Be especially careful with pronouns. “Antecedent unclear” and “unclear referent” are among the most common editorial queries, in both fiction and nonfiction. They mean we can’t figure out for sure whom a he, she, it, or they is referring to. In the job I just finished, the vast majority of the players were men — as is often the case in books about politics and international affairs, which this one was.  Often a he, his, or him could have referred to either of the two fellows mentioned in the preceding clause or sentence.

Authors often miss these unclear antecedents because the antecedents aren’t unclear to them. They know exactly who’s being referred to. Readers, however, aren’t in the same loop. We need a little help. Better to repeat a name than leave it ambiguous. This is one reason second readers can be so important: they come to the manuscript without knowing what you mean. They just read what’s there.

Have you got an unruly sentence that could use some untangling, or one that you’ve successfully untangled yourself? Send it along! The best way to develop an eye for what works and what doesn’t is to pay close attention to how sentences work. We can do this in our reading, in our writing, and in our revising.