I took my novel on the road this weekend when I attended, and read at, the annual conference of the Arkansas Philological Association. This group puts on a comfortable and very welcoming get together every year in some lovely regional locations. This year the gathering was held in the grand old Ozarks mountain town of Eureka Springs, and given that my novel is just begging to be heard, even if it's still in progress, I jumped on the invitation from Conference Director Chuck Bane to participate in a creative writing session. I did read a tiny bit of the novel to a class of mine about a year ago, but the APA conference was the very first time I'd revealed it in anything approximating a public forum. And it also happened to be the very first time my wife heard it--something I'm a little chagrined to admit, but only a little, because I'm about to dump the entire, and too long, manuscript on her.
As you can imagine, I was rather tense. I've talk about what I'm doing to many people--family, colleagues, students, friends, readers of this blog--but never actually exposed it. But, honestly, what really frazzled me was deciding which scenes to read. This, I've learned, is a whole other level of difficulty from deciding which of one's short stories to read. After all, the novel scenes must effectively represent an entire book. The story needs only be itself. And in my case, it was the first time "out of the house" for this book. Ahhhh! I figured I had time enough (20 mins.) to read two scenes. But which? Good gosh, there are scores of scenes in this book, at least in its current form. How would I decide which two are absolute right two? The day before I left I ran off about ten different scenes and started rehearsing them over and over, trying to figure which two would best strike an audience as well as best fit the time limit and best present the range of characters and perspectives that are in the book. I finally chose to read the scene about the party in Paris attended by Suzanne Valadon (see a previous post) and a scene in which Vincent paints the well known portrait of his Belgian friend Boch. I guess it was a fine enough choice, because I received many compliments afterwards, but what interested me most about the whole experience was realizing once again how much you learn about your own writing by reading it aloud. I know, I know, this is a very old and boring truth. It doesn't sound like a revelation. In fact, I tell it to my own students all the time, but this weekend I learned that I can afford to be reminded of it myself. After all, I thought these scenes were fairly polished already, and yet I found myself--as I practiced reading them--slashing through them with pen: cutting words, cutting more words, cutting more words, changing words, inserting other words, changing names, attacking whole paragraphs. Whew! I put those suckers through the wringer. How could I have not realized before how much additional editing they needed?
Garry Craig Powell, a great writer and a good friend of mine in the Writing Department at UCA, told me last spring that the most valuable thing he did when revising his own novel was to read a chapter of it aloud every night to his girlfriend. Not only because she is his best critic but because by reading aloud he learned so well what worked in the sentences and what simply didn't. At the time I told him that I understood what he meant--because I did--but now I really understand. And now my wife has not only a mammoth manuscript to wade through but will be forced to listen to it every night as I start a new phase of revision: reading the entire thing aloud. Thanks Garry, thanks APA, and thanks Chuck Bane. You've already made my book a lot better.
Quick note: I received a lovely note from the poet Anne Whitehouse, who has published a poem called "Van Gogh in Arles." Click on the title to get to the poem. As I told Anne, she's really captured well the physicality of Van Gogh's attraction to the landscape of the region. Anne's poem reminds us too how this once utterly unknown painter has so captivated the imaginations of myriad literary artists. I know he did mine. That's something of a miracle, as are his paintings.