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Upon all the Living and the Dead

At the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy awakens to the fact that the reality he has come to know and understand is an illusion.  He sees his wife sobbing about a dead boy from her youth, and he wonders if he had ever known her at all.  Throughout the story we see Gabriel Conroy, pompous and blustering, stumble through a dinner party, offending everyone, completely unaware of how other people see him.  He’s confident, in control, he observes everything with a cool intellectualism.  Even his wife standing on the stair appears to him as a painting, “Distant Music,” he would call it.  Poor Gabriel.  In the end, he stares out the window, watching the snow fall over Ireland, thinking of his wife’s dead lover, realizing that she loves that dead boy more than she will ever love him.  It’s what they call an epiphany, and Joyce was good at writing them.  It’s when one has a sudden realization, maybe about oneself or one’s situation.  A flash of self awareness, a break in the “play,” the script of one’s life, the narrative we write for ourselves.  It can be orgasmic like in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist or it can be, in Gabriel’s case, devastating. 

I feel like writers have to go through what Gabriel goes through every time we receive a critique.  The sparkling wit we thought was so evident on the page falls flat.  The characters that seem so alive in our minds are weak and two dimensional.  The dialogue we thought was so snappy, bores.  The plot drags.  The motivation is questionable.  Things fall apart.  They suck.  It’s terrible.

I received some rough critique this week, and while I’m grateful for the insight, I would be lying if I said it didn’t hurt.  I’ve gotten really good at taking critique.  Much better than I was when I was younger.  I’ve learned that the first three drafts of anything I write are going to be horrible.  And by horrible, I mean a disaster, a train-wreck, dead bodies covered in white sheets splayed over the ground, helicopters swooping in calling out for survivors. It’s hella bad, but I’ve learned to accept this. For the most part.

I think like many young people, I was drawn to writing by the Beats.  Oh, those Beats.  My foreign exchange student recently confessed her love of Jack Kerouac, so of course for her birthday I ran out and bought The Subterraneans.  On the back cover was something like, “Written over three days…” etc, etc.  America, we need to stop selling the myth of the Beats.  It’s not doing our young writers any favors.  No one writes a novel in three days.  And if they do, it sucks.  Maybe Jack Kerouac got lucky, maybe he had a great editor.  I have no idea. But good writing requires drafts.  Several drafts.  I really don’t think my writing becomes something close to good until about the seventh draft, and even then…

I think the best thing about this week’s critique was that both people said that my action scene was “good” (or maybe not “good,” but “not bad”).  I bled over this scene.  Action scenes are crazy hard. I didn’t realize this until I had to write one.  “Um…there’s a snake, and he bit this guy, and then this guy had a sword, and…yeah…it was crazy.  THE END.”  I spent days on this scene, writing and rewriting sentences, building tension, carefully choreographing it.  I must have written it ten times.  And I’m so proud of it, and I’m so happy that my hard work paid off.  That scene was about three pages long.  Seeing as though my novel is just over 300 pages, I only have to repeat this magic that many times.  Probably twice.  Okay, at least seven times.  But that’s revision, and that’s where the magic happens. Writing can be an incredible high, or why else would writer’s do it?  But editing is where we learn who we are, where we have to grow up and face indisputable facts about ourselves and the stories we tell.  It’s where the epiphanies happen, and that’s where great literature begins. 

P.S. I got rammed in the rear over my adverbs, but look at this last line of Joyce’s “The Dead,” arguably one of the greatest lines in literature ever written:  “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”  Suck it, Stephen King.  

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