Whatever kind of writer you are, there are trade-offs. I’m fast. Too fast. It is 9:40 a.m as I write this and I have written almost 2,000 words this morning. Granted, they are rough draft words, the kind of words one writes in the early throes of a novel, when it has the power to shock and surprise you. I am, in fact, still a little stunned by something just revealed to me. I knew my main character had been betrayed by girls she considered her friends, back when she was 15, but the nature of the betrayal is unsettling and showed up, rather unexpectedly, at the end of a chapter in which the woman, now middle-aged, visits her father at a senior residence where he has been roaming the halls, his bathrobe not cinched as tightly as it should be, given that he’s wearing nothing else. (He’s of sound mind, actually, sharp as a tack. He just enjoys upsetting the elderly women who live on his hall.)
As it happens, the final copy of ANOTHER THING TO FALL arrived at my house this week. Usually, I take the finished book and lock it away somewhere, out of sight, as if it were a demon that could destroy me. Odds are, I’ll open the pages and see a glaring error. In fact, I noticed a shocking over-use of adverbs in one section, a profligacy with adverbs that, in a just world, could end with Stephen King and Elmore Leonard showing up on one’s doorstep with a rubber hose.
Then I flipped to the last line. How I had worried that last line. Just getting there had been a struggle; an early version had actually ended with an homage to the end of Ulysses, which I retreated from because a) I haven’t actually read Ulysses and b) “Oh, get over yourself! Ulysses? Who are you kidding?” Finally, I found the moment I needed, a tiny, fleeting image of a man, a stranger, someone who has not appeared in the text before. It spoils nothing to tell you that I described this man’s face as “wild with hope” in draft after draft.
But in December, as I sat with the galleys in my lap on a film set in Sasolburg, South Africa — oh, yeah, I’m totally trying to convince you that my life is glamorous, but if you’ve ever been to a film set, much less Sasolburg, you’ll know I was bored out of my mind — I worried that line over and over. “Wild with hope” was too . . . normal. I wanted something that would be more surprising, an unexpected juxtaposition. I wanted, in short, to be a poet. I often want to be a poet. But the fact is, I know some poets. (Lizzie Skurnick, who pops in here from time to time is an excellent one.) Every January, when I’m at Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise and I hear others read poems — Peter Meinke, Beth Ann Fennelly and, this year, Jay Nicorvo — I briefly suffer from the delusion that I might be able to write poems. This year, for example, I kept working — in my head — on a poem called “Twelve Things I Must Do if I am to Become Peter Meinke Before I Die.” (A sex change was not among those things, but learning tennis was.) But, as Robin Williams says in the under-rated “Dead, Again,” you have to know what you are, a smoker or a non-smoker, and be that thing. I am a non-poet.
Still, after much thought, I changed “wild” to “weary.” And when I saw it in the finished copy, I thought, fleetingly: I was right. A quick Google shows many instances of “wild with hope,” but “weary with hope” is much more rare and, interestingly, often applied to DeSoto, the explorer whose story seemed most vivid to me in grade school. DeSoto and Hudson.
Stories of word choices that have obsessed you, whether in writing, marriage proposals or grocery lists.