22. “In writing fiction, one can never stand still. Once you learn how to do one thing you have to start learning how to do something else.” (279) (Caroline Gordon’s ‘Letter to Flannery O’Connor)
Editing is a whole new learning, that’s for sure. I believe I’ve written in other posts that I’ve never had to edit/revise something as long as the novel I’m working on, which is true. But I’ve also never had the stakes. I want this story to be good and be worthy of print, and so there’s a seriousness to take on that I’ve never had before.
This means more agonizing over sentences (as Sontag instructed), as well as better record keeping. I’ve started to keep a running document of descriptors I’ve used in early chapters, for instance, that I need to remember for later chapters. Both so I don’t contradict myself but also so there’s a continuity in character that is high quality.
These are different skills than it takes to simply write, with a different approach. Because a novel is so BIG, it requires a certain framework of planning that isn’t present in short stories, and certainly not essays or poems. So I am learning all of this, and at the same time also re-learning skills as a writer.
I think Gordon’s advice here is apt—though since it was in a letter to another fiction writer (a great one at that) I don’t know if she meant it as advice per se. She may have meant it almost bemoaningly; as if it “never stops” when one is a writer. Or she may have been looking for O’Connor to concur with what she said, confirming that there is always something more to learn.
But it’s true. This craft is wide and diverse; and it’s just not the learning HOW to do something (write dialogue, write a scene, write tension) but also to learning WHAT is going on in your works.
I think about movies. It took (and in some ways is still taking) so long for movies to adapt to cell phone culture. Cell phones are a part of our everyday lives, and have been for a decade now, but in movies for some time you never saw characters using them. Or they did and it’d be a totally outdated model (not their fault) and no one would text, they’d just have this sort of fake dialogue that was probably meant for personal conversation but got forcefully adapted to a phone call. It took screenwriters and directors years to learn how to use cell phones in movies (this goes for books too really).
So as writers, we need to keep learning, even after we learned something, or even mastered. It’s just the way of the world. And it’s not exclusive to writers, or fiction writers, for sure, because life is so often about evolution and adaptation. What is unique to fiction writers is that idea to not stop moving, to try and capture what we can in story and to do that with the diversity of approach that each story requires. So there is a learning that must go on, always.