Literary Hub

David Vann: “If I Miss a Single Morning of Writing, It Changes My Novel”

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When I was at Stanford as an undergrad and then Cornell as a grad student, I was under the impression that writing is mostly revision, and that even if a story or novel isn’t fully outlined ahead of time, there is at least some planning or idea of what it will be about. Turns out my writing is nothing like that. I wrote eight books from April 2008 to April 2016, plus a translation of Beowulf and two screenplays and hundreds of interviews and a dozen essays, etc., and here’s how it happened.

I was very busy during these years, traveling up to ten months per year doing book launches in thirty countries and going to about eighty international literary festivals. I was constantly changing hotels and cities. But I fought with all my publishers to protect my mornings. They were resistant, wanting me to fly or take trains or visit bookstores or do festival events in the mornings, but I fought hard to never leave my hotel room before noon. I can write only in the morning when I’m fresh, and I have to be in a room alone, but it can be any room anywhere.

One of my novels, Dirt, makes fun of the New Age Movement in California in the 1980s, but I was a true believer like the protagonist Galen, firewalking and meditating and trying to walk on water, crashing into various mountain lakes and hot tubs thinking this time my feet will not sink, and my writing process now is an extension of Buddhist meditation. I can make fun of that time but I can’t really leave it.

Every morning I write for an hour and a half. The first 45 minutes or hour I’m reading through the last 20 or 30 pages of the novel I’m working on. My mind is distracted and going many different ways, thinking about lunch and my travel schedule later in the day and sex and money and my growing muffin top and everything else, but I keep bringing my focus back to the page, just as in meditation. When I arrive at the end, I’m supposed to write my new page or two, but I’m convinced every day in this moment that I will never write another page. So I reread the last two or three pages, and then I end up firing off a paragraph. I’m writing as fast as I can type, which is nearly as fast as I can think. There are no decisions, no formulating of sentences. I have no idea what will happen each day, what the characters will do or say or even what the book is about, and I’m convinced every day that what I’m writing is shit, but this paragraph happens quickly anyway, and I reread the last couple pages again and then the rest of my page happens and I emerge from a kind of time-warp which has been only 30 or 45 minutes but feels like it was both two seconds and two hours. I’m often a bit horrified or ashamed about what has happened on the page, and certainly always surprised. My books offer a bit of crazy from every day of writing, which means every page or two.

The way it works is like a Rorschach test. Our minds are pattern makers, and we can never see the world in a neutral way. So anyone looking at ink smashed on paper will not see only ink and paper but will see meaning, making shape and narrative. My books all focus on natural landscape. I have no plan, outline, plot, or theme but only a place to describe as seen from a character who is not at peace. The way this landscape is seen will inevitably have shape and reveal the inside life of the character. Taken together, these moments of observation become an author’s vision and fit into a long tradition of focus on rural landscape in American fiction. It’s the longest, largest, and most important tradition in American literature, far more important than urban writing, despite what our publishing industry in New York likes to believe about themselves. The reason it’s interesting is that the unconscious mind is far more strange, powerful, and patterned than the conscious one. Conscious ideas are small and limit stories. An idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer.

My novel Goat Mountain has not a single paragraph added, deleted, or moved from the first draft to the final publication. It has only line edits. Dirt has only three or four paragraphs changed. Caribou Island has seven or eight short paragraphs added for background material about the protagonist at the request of my editor. Even Bright Air Black, though it follows the myth of Medea and therefore has much more plot, has not a single scene deleted or added. This lack of fundamental revision is for two reasons. One is that I wrote at full speed during a dream, and that dream is of one piece, and immediately afterward the manuscript gains a hard shell and I can no longer re-enter to add a scene, even though I would of course like to be able to improve my work and do always spend months trying. The other reason is the nature of drama. If you’re truly writing drama, going 2500 years back to the Greeks, thinking of a novel or story as being a play in its structure, then what happens in each scene, what is done and said by the characters, creates everything about the next scene. What this means is that you can never remove a scene. If you did, everything that follows would be baseless and make no sense. You can’t add a scene, either, because it would have no consequence, nothing following it. It would present a bizarre disruption in the text. So no one who is actually writing drama can possibly add or delete a single scene during revision, which would seem to mean that most writers are not writing drama.

Here’s the mystery, though. Writing can work just as well approached completely differently. I’ve heard that John Irving outlines everything ahead of time, including what will happen in scenes within chapters, and certainly his books are no less alive and surprising. They have structures that feel organic and dramatic. Ross Raisin writes an entire novel by hand and then starts again and writes it by hand again, a process I can’t possibly imagine doing, and yet I love his novels. Annie Proulx does so much research and has such varied writing stylistically, truly a master, and yet each voice she does feels inevitable and whole.

So it’s impossible to make any pronouncements about how writing works, and we each have to find our own way. Because I was a selfish New Age freak meditating in an effort to find more sex, I now have a Buddhist writing process that sounds a bit unlikely but has worked well enough.

I have to add just a couple more notes about how an entire novel can be structured unconsciously, with the final chapters matching the opening chapters, just so that you’ll believe me and not think I’m making everything up. The first point is momentum. If I miss a single morning of writing, it changes my novel and I feel great regret. If I miss three or four mornings, I lose the novel and can never return to it. The unconscious can only paste it all together within a rigid routine. The second point is failure. I wrote these eight books in eight years because I had failed at all of them twelve or twenty-five years before. They were mostly about family tragedies and set in places we lived, so my subconcious or unconscious mind (and the truth is that I don’t know which term is preferable, so apply either term to each instance above) had decades to make pattern and connection and form meaning and narrative, and these earlier failures in the writing provided additional opportunity to re-knit pattern in the background. Without having spent years of failure earlier, they would not have been written so swiftly and easily. The truth is I enjoyed every day of writing during those eight years and didn’t suffer at all, never had a single day of writer’s block, and never felt frustrated with a story.

But now I’m stuck. I guess all good things come to an end. I’ve written half a dozen short stories in the past six months, but I have no idea what I’m doing in my writing right now or what novel or story I would write next. I feel I have to relearn everything about how to write.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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