Editor’s Note: Bathsheba is teaching a sold-out workshop for 49 Writers this weekend. She will also be speaking and signing publicly Friday February 14, at 7 PM the Anchorage Museum.
Six years ago this coming May, I opened my laptop in a sunny café in Berkeley, California to a blank Word file. Beside me was a pile of books with titles like Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems and Reindeer Breeding, covered with a sagging mound of printed academic articles. A week before, I had been photographing documents in an archive in Russia’s far northeast; my brain was still half on Chukotka time, nineteen hours ahead across the International Date Line. On the hard-drive humming next to my oversized coffee were notes, scanned documents, and photos from Anadyr and twenty or so other archives, thousands of pages from across Russia and the US. Now I was supposed to turn all that into a history dissertation – a first book draft, really. The cursor blinked. Morse code for how?
Historians, like all nonfiction writers, build their narratives from evidence. The story must start from sources – interviews, archival documents, published reports, scholarly works, scientific studies. Often such sources hardly thrum with drama: next to me, that May morning, my hard-drive contained hundreds of folders of Soviet bureaucratic correspondence, the tidbits and facts they contained obscured by a rote blandness matched only by documents written by their American counterparts. And that pile of books and articles? They were filled with amazing details – a bowhead whale can live for two centuries, a reindeer eats 400 species of plants and lichens in a year – but written for specialists with concerns other than narrative thrill or lyrical diction.
Over the next six years, the piles of research books grew, the paper printouts turned to drifts in my office, and I had to learn to use database software to wrangle my hard-drive. From these sources I learned many more things – the names and dreams of early Bolshevik recruits on the Chukchi Peninsula, the song evolution of whales, the lifespan of an arctic fox, the names of valleys filled with tin ore or haunted, on Chukchi land, by giants. I also learned a few things about turning these sources into narratives. I began to think if it as an almost sculptural process, one with distinct steps and drafts.
Structure: What do you want to sculpt?
The structure of any written piece will shift as it develops, but having some sense of what the end should look like – how long, where it starts and stops in time, who is going to read it and why – gives guiderails to the writing. Sources can be your guide here: what are the patterns you’ve observed in what you’ve read? What is striking and new to you? Who or what are your main characters? Is it chronological, or a biography, or a multi-layered story that might Meander, Spiral, Explode as Jane Alison’s book describes? Is there a structure that is part of the argument or larger point you want to make?
Order from Chaos: Or, Make Yourself Some Clay
This is the hardest step, as John McPhee describes so perfectly in his essay “Draft No. 4,” one that is slow and clumsy “because every sentence affects not only those before it but also those that follow” and, emotionally, feels like being haunted or hunted or both. It’s the first stab at making words on a page, assembling facts into sentences and sentences into stories. I came to think of this as something like mixing planting soil, or potter’s clay, or cement: about getting some consistency on the page by stringing together sourced pieces of information with interpretation and narrative arc. It is often necessary to make more than one batch, that is, to say the same thing five times in a row to figure it out. It is impossible not to use every last fact and joyful discovery from research. It is, like mixing concrete, messy and formless. It is also critical.
Finding the Metaphors: Sculpting the Piece
This is the delicious point in a writing project. You have your clay, your slurry of words that is the first draft. You know where things begin and end. Now you can go back through your sources and refine them: which are really important, to this story, the one you have pulled onto the page? Which did you overlook, back when you had less structure? What can you take out? This is where the form of the piece moves from hypothetical structure to actual structure. And, to me the most enjoyable, what are the guiding metaphors that hold a chapter or essay together? These too come from sources; I often found them in the descriptions of natural processes. Whole paragraphs move. Sometimes whole sections. Too often, I found I’d written a section to figure something out that in the end warranted only two sentences. If an essay were a sculpture, this is where the arms and legs take form: not wholly distinct, yet, but emergent.
The Final Draft: Put on the Glaze and Fire it in the Kiln.
Sculpting a piece of writing can take several drafts: turning over the structure, returning to the sources. But then, often with the help of editors and friends’ wise interventions, it’s all done but the final polish. Sections, paragraphs, sentences were all improving in the previous passes and reworkings; the shape of the thing becoming clear. This is when the metaphorical fingerprints are etched into your sculpture, the limbs turned just so. Word choices, sentence lengths, paragraph spacing become the real work. The sources have become a seamless part of the whole, invisible but everywhere.
I’m just starting my second book, and am still in the archival phase. In a few months or a year, I’ll be back to that blinking cursor asking how? At least this time, I might have the beginnings of an answer.