The Value of Forgetting

Through a veil

A good memory is both blessing and curse to a novelist. As with all two-edged weapons, you have to wield it with caution, lest you damage your own self…or in the authorial case, your story.

When you’re battling through that first draft, it is indeed a blessing: it helps you keep the plot tight and the characters consistent. A good memory gives you a world you can step into and live in along with your characters, and watch them build the story as you record it. You are a participant observer in a fully realized world that lives, in fact, only in your memory, after all.

Once you’ve tapped out “The End,” then memory becomes a curse. You can be too aware of what you were hoping to do with your novel, and that vivid memory may get busily to work filling in the gaps that your actual words have left. (And there are always gaps and goofs.) It plays hell with revisions!

I have a good memory, so I have to trick it: once I’ve finished a first draft, I let it sit for at least a month. This is not easy to do: I want to dive right back in, catch the typos, find the inconsistencies, tighten the scenes that have gotten sloppy. But I know I won’t be able to while the story is so fresh in my mind. And so I leave it, forlorn and alone in the dark of a drawer (or, these days, the electric night of a computer drive, with an off-site backup, of course)–and I go do something else. This is the time when I write most of my poems and short stories: while the novel settles into itself. After a month, I come back and start to read it like any outside reader.

That’s when I discover embarrassing errors, sloppy phrasings, characters talking in each other’s voices, and of course the inevitable typos. Only then, after I’ve completed the second draft, do I send it to my editors for a true outsider’s evaluation.

You’ll find that many contract editors very particularly stipulate that you not send them first drafts, ever. And you’d better not–especially if you yourself are paying the editor, which is common in these days of “independent publishing.” You’ll be wasting your money if you’re paying them to do something you should have done, or, worse yet, if you irritate them enough that they won’t work with you.

Because you need their input. Nobody is so good that they can eschew revision. If you read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, you’ll find his plaint that Gertrude Stein could have been a great, great writer, if only she had not categorically refused to rewrite. Hemingway worked to get her vast book, The Making of Americans, published anyway, because it was, as he said, brilliant in parts. But few people read her these days.

So don’t depend on your own brilliance, even if you are brilliant, as Stein was. It’s not enough. Revise, rewrite, reject, rebuild, but do what it takes to make your novel better.

Just don’t do it right away. Let yourself forget how good it looked when you finished it, so you can see how awkward it might seem to an outsider, who isn’t blessed with your own vivid memories of intention.

Forget the story, but never forget the rewrite. Being great isn’t good enough. You also have to be thorough.

Rick Risemberg