My dear friend Harriet Scott Chessman’s new novel, The Lost Sketchbook of Edgar Degas, is just out this week, and is FABULOUS! She’s the author of four prior novels, including The Beauty of Ordinary Things and Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper. Harriet has also written the libretto for My Lai, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. Her fiction has been translated into eight languages, and she has taught at Yale University, Bread Loaf School of English, and Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program. – Meg
Harriet Scott Chessman: In Praise of Stubbornness
To be stubborn, as Merriam-Webster defines it, is to be “1. 1a (1) unreasonably or perversely unyielding: MULISH,” or (2) “justifiably unyielding: RESOLUTE.”
I guess it depends on the context and point of view, whether one’s stubbornness is “mulish” or “resolute.” I like to think, however, that these two qualities are really the same thing, when it comes to writing. How can you tell if your unyielding devotion to a character, a fictional world, a voice, is justified, unless you just go for it, and see the story through, right to the end, and then create revision after revision? How can you know, ahead of time, whether and how your efforts will have success?
When I first turned to writing fiction, after almost twenty years in the field of teaching and scholarship, I felt so moved and excited by the fact that stories were welling up inside me. I felt like a receiver of gifts, as images and voices started emerging and spilling onto the page. What an extraordinary sensation this is, to know you’re bringing something into the world, through your words – something new to yourself, yet resonating with your life’s experience! Yet I could not possibly have seen those first stories through to fruition if I hadn’t had enormous stubbornness.
To be stubborn as a writer, in the best sense, is to be a staunch believer in what wells up, and to trust firmly in its possible goodness, in spite of doubts needling you and whispering to you and spearing you from within and without, and in spite of the difficulties always presenting themselves as your story goes wildly astray, your characters refuse to come forward, and the whole thing appears to be simply a mess. Sometimes you feel as if you’re just fishing in the wrong pond and you might as well pack up your tackle and go home, and never dream of fish again.
My most recent novel, The Lost Sketchbook of Edgar Degas, is a good case in point. I held onto and developed this material about Degas in New Orleans for ten years, on and off, writing, rewriting, giving up, and trying again from a new angle. I often enjoyed the writing, on a daily basis, and yet I kept coming to moments (months!) when I looked at what I had – a lot of half-filled-out characters in hopeless search of a story – and despaired.
As with my earlier books, I couldn’t discover my story until I discovered the voice – the entrance into the fictional world that felt right, the one I could trust to see me through. Once I happened upon my character Tell’s voice, I knew I could one day write the novel. I still had a lot to figure out, however: how much of her life would come into this book, and what was the heart of her story? What was it she had to reach before the novel could land?
I cut out everything in my earlier drafts that didn’t mesh with Tell’s point of view, and . . . I waited. I made a couple more false starts, in the midst of a big cross-country move and a bout of illness. And then, within a year or two, I felt ready. I came back to my most recent draft and saw it clearly. Before I could permit one more moment of discouragement, I dove back in, cutting this, snipping that, developing the other. Before I knew it, the novel was done.
Talk about mulishness and resoluteness! Thank heavens for general pigheadedness! I wish you mounds of the stuff. It will see you through, I am sure of it. – Harriet