Being a writer is like being a sculptor, except a writer makes her own stone. Sometimes a stone emerges that is so unusual in form or material that it can stand on its own, without being worked. But these kinds of stones are rare and anyway cannot be replicated. The rest of us have to work on a stone for a long time before it fits the image we have in our minds. Most people give up too soon. They give up at the raw-stone stage, which is to say at the first or second draft.
“The material usually comes first, and then I think about the design,” the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto recently told an interviewer. This is a good way to think about almost every creative activity. Once a writer has her first draft, she needs to forget that she made it. She needs to see it as an organic object and then evaluate it the way a sculptor evaluates a rock or a painter evaluates a surface. Is the stone big, small, soft, flaky? Is this story about loss or sadness or joy? Why did I even write this? What is it that I’m really trying to say? Why does this story obsess me so? And then the writer can begin to start chipping away everything that doesn’t belong.
Yes, we are talking about revisions: They take many forms. Most people think of them as changing a comma here, fixing a typo there, removing the passive voice, adding a bit of dialogue. Those are minor revisions. And a manuscript needs them. But before you get to that, you need to think about the big revisions. Should this really be in the third person? Or did I just write it that way because it was easier? Is the voice of this character too sophisticated for a six- year-old? Do I have the timing right? Should I begin elsewhere? All of this takes time. A lot of time. Art is slow. Some days it seems you are making no progress at all. But time is what allows you to work in the fine details. Time is how you arrive at the tiny strokes, imperceptible to the lay consumer, but utterly crucial for the transformative power of any artwork.
Then, when you think it’s finally time to stop, you’ve only just entered the final phase. A lot of people stop here too. When it seems just good enough. I often stop here myself. But for you it’s not good enough. Because you know better. How do you know better? Because if you are a sculptor you have educated yourself to the point that you understand that your stone hand is missing the precise rise of a nearly imperceptible tendon. The smile needs one more tiny wrinkle. If you are a writer, you have educated yourself on the form to the point that you know that this essay might cut it for a quick presentation or a college assignment. But it is not something that William Gass would publish. It is not equal to an essay by Joan Didion. So you go back, trying to match the greats, stroke for stroke.
Sometimes you tell a story over and over many times and it’s a good story, but it’s not transcendent. Still, you keep it up. You keep telling it. Why? Because your body knows the story is trying to say something more than what you are letting it say. Because your ego is scared. Tell your ego that this is not his story any more.
One summer, I found myself in Paris. It was August. If you’ve ever visited in the summer you know that Paris in August is dead – that’s when half the city leaves for vacation. Many shops and restaurants are closed and those that remain open are often staffed by surly staff and stalked by all those souls without enough money or connections to escape the city.
On my first night, I managed to find a decent restaurant near the Luxembourg Gardens. It was a gorgeous evening and I decided to eat out on the patio. I was the only patron and the waiter was brusque with me— stupid American coming to Paris in August and disturbing the local indolence. I ordered a half- carafe of red wine and a cheese plate. I love cheese plates. And this one belied the season, the rude waiter, the desolate streets: This one was a work of art. Somewhere deep inside the restaurant, there was a chef who cared. Even though it was August and all his friends were at the seashore, this chef cared enough to make sure the cheeses were at the right temperature, the Brillat-Savarin just this side of melting, the Mimolette without a drop of condensation. They had been chosen and arranged with care—: Comte, chevre, Camembert, Valdeón—; the board dotted with fig jam and walnuts and surrounded by freshly toasted bread. I was in such a reverie that I didn’t notice the bedraggled woman pacing the periphery until it was too late. Suddenly, she darted for my table and grabbed the cheese board.
I can’t explain what I did next. It’s not a reaction I’m proud of. This woman was clearly down and out. She was hungry. But my first impulse was to grab the cheese back. I sat there, in my seat tugging at my end of the board as the other woman tugged at her end. In the middle of this epic struggle, my surly waiter darted out to the patio. He yelled a few words and chased the woman off.
Then he turned to me with disgust and snatched the cheese board off the table. My French isn’t very good. But even if it were, I would not have known what to say. I had only finished about half the plate – why was I being punished? I sat sulking there for a few moments, growing more and more embarrassed about how I had handled the whole thing. What a ridiculous figure I must have cut, tugging on my cheese, Mine! Mine!
And then the waiter reappeared. He was still unsmiling. But in his hands he carried a full cheese board, one perhaps even more generous than the first. My eyes widened at the bounty: more Camembert than I could eat, the chevre, the Mimolette. He put the board down in front of me and, wagging a finger, addressed me like a drill sergeant: Faites attention!
Now that is a funny anecdote to tell at a party. And I’ve told it often. It happened more than a decade ago and I retell it at least once a year. But this airy little anecdote haunted me in a way that the story doesn’t fully reveal or explain. I kept going back to it, not even sure why. And then finally one day, on a run, I understood. What if I tell you that I was in Paris that August to see a lover. That the reason I was dining alone is because he was spending that particular evening with his wife. And that in the coming year there would be some unpleasantness and a lot of sorrow. Suddenly, then, the waiter’s admonition to Pay attention! means something else, though at the time, it didn’t mean much more to me. At the time, I thought the waiter was only warning me about the cheese.
Sometimes a decade will have to go by before you understand the stone you’ve made, or why you return to it again and again though it is just an ordinary stone without much to say. Sometimes you will have to sit at your desk for years. And nothing at all will come. But you need to be patient. Because the gods have a sense of humor. And they are willing to wait – until you are out on a run, or sick in bed, or in the shower – to reveal the punchline, to whisper the secret that at last releases laughter from the dumb stone.
Ana Menéndez has published four books of fiction. She is currently revising a new book on travel, family and home.