This guest post is part of the blog tour for The Stone Girl as well as the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is Alyssa B. Sheinmel revealing hers…
Guest post by Alyssa B. Sheinmel
When asked, I always say that my favorite part of writing is revising. I don’t think of a project as a book until I’ve revised it. Of course, I love the sense of possibility that comes with writing a first draft, love the sense of achievement that comes with meeting a daily word-count-goal, love writing scenes that I knew were coming when I began telling the story. But, once I’m sitting on a first draft, I don’t really have much satisfaction about it. I don’t even call my first draft a “first draft.” It’s just this nameless thing taking up space on my computer—until I begin rewriting it.
I wasn’t always this way. In school, I wrote my short stories speedily: one draft, read over for spelling errors and finished. Sure, I’d revise a story in one of the many workshop classes I’d attended in high school and college, but I’d never really dug into something on my own; I’d never really split a first draft into pieces and done the work of putting it back together again.
Until the first semester of my senior year of college. I had an amazing writing teacher and mentor named Mary Gordon who broke my stories open for me and forced me to paste them together into something different. The first story I wrote in her class was called “Class Anorexic” and was about one of my classmates who was severely anorexic. (This was deep in the period of my own body-obsession, the inspiration for The Stone Girl.) My first draft was three pages long; after Professor Gordon and I were done with it, it was nine pages long. In one of our many discussions about the story, she asked me how I could tell that the girl in the story was anorexic and not just naturally skinny. After years of having been fascinated by eating disorders, I’d become something of an expert at telling the difference. It was her face, I explained: her hollow cheeks, the lips that seemed a size too large for what was left of her face. I spoke enviously of her collarbones and shoulder blades, popping up from underneath her tank top as though they were battling her skin for more space. I’d thought that what I saw was obvious on the page; my teacher told me that it wasn’t. And so I wrote the story again, a second draft, with more detail than my first. I discovered that I had to slow down in order to show the painstaking aspects of her thinness.
I brought it back to Professor Gordon expecting a glowing review, but she wanted more. I had to dig deeper, closely examining the emotions this girl’s thinness brought out of the narrator—out of me. I had to explain why I was so uncomfortable, so terribly tongue-tied and red-faced around this girl. Was it because I was worried about her, shaken up by how sick she looked? No; it was because, at the time, I was jealous. I felt inadequate around her because she’d managed to succeed at what I had failed at, she’d managed to starve herself when I always gave in to my hunger.
I can’t remember just how many drafts the story went through, or which draft my teacher finally accepted as complete. I’d never worked so hard on anything I’d written before, and I’d never liked anything I’d written more. In fact, pieces of that story found their way into a scene in The Stone Girl.
I don’t think I ever would have finished a novel if not for the lessons Professor Gordon taught me. Writing a novel, I make tons of mistakes. I usually know when I’m making them: I know when something on page 150 doesn’t line up with an idea I began on page 10; I know when I introduce a new theme in the final chapters that should have been included from the very start. If I felt like I had to fix all of those errors as I wrote, I don’t think I’d ever get the last scenes down on paper. Knowing that I can go back in and fix whatever I missed later, knowing that I can go back in and completely rework entire scenes, chapters, characters—is what allows me to write in the first place. If I didn’t know that, honestly, I think I’d be too intimidated to start anything.
It’s not, I know, like this for every writer. Some people’s final drafts are almost identical to their first drafts. For me, though, it’s the freedom of knowing I can and will re-work everything from the most minute of details to the most encompassing of themes that gets me from page to page. And, it’s the part of writing to which I look the most forward; going back in and making it better, stronger, more cohesive, and deeper is like solving a puzzle to me. I’m very big on editing myself—I go through multiple drafts of a novel before I’ll share it with anyone. And, I give Mary Gordon much of the credit for that. Her classes were without a doubt a turning point in my life as a writer. I can still remember word for word lines from most of the stories I wrote in her classes.
Alyssa B. Sheinmel is the author of two previous novels, The Beautiful Between and The Lucky Kind. She grew up in Northern California and New York, and attended Barnard College. Alyssa lives and writes in New York City. Her new novel, The Stone Girl, is now on sale.
You can visit her on the Web at AlyssaSheinmel.com.