Uncategorized | July 19, 2011

In ten days my partner and I will pack a rented truck with furniture, kitchen appliances and hundreds – many hundreds – of books, and move across the country. My daughters’ bedrooms are full of boxes and scattered piles of toys, crayons, books and scraps of paper. The kitchen looks as though several small explosives knocked everything out of the cabinets and across the counters. Every surface is covered in things waiting to be put into boxes.

Yesterday, as I was lugging boxes across the room and stacking them in rows along a wall, it occurred to me that preparing to move and writing a novel might have a few things in common. With both, I try to get a little bit done each day and feel frustrated and annoyed with myself if I don’t manage to carve out time to write or pack at least one box. And with both, sometimes things look worse before they look better.

In my life and in my writing I require a certain sense of order. I just can’t think straight if my house is a mess. But when the house is full of boxes, it can be tricky to find the space to think, so I create a kind of temporary order by showing the boxes to once side and moving the things covering surfaces into groups. Writing a novel, like packing, means spending a lot of time in the messy middle with scenes and kitchen gadgets, snippets of dialogue and Barbie dolls, unruly characters and things that just won’t fit in a box.

A few months ago I began using Scrivener. I wasn’t sold at first, but then I took the time to work my way through the tutorial and now I’m hooked. It gives me places to keep all the messy bits and pieces of my novel without feeling like they need a place to fit right away: the virtual equivalent of labeling and stacking boxes as I pack. It’s not a single linear document in which a paragraph has to go before something and after something else because that’s just how it works, and it’s also not a complicated hierarchy of folders on my desktop filled with dozens of separate documents that are tricky to find when I need them, even if I remember they’re there in the first place.

Using Scrivener hasn’t just changed the way I keep track of things; it’s changed the way I write. Because I don’t have to either move from point A to point B, or keep things in separate documents, it has freed me to work on scenes even when I have no idea where they’re going to go in the end, to write conversations between characters that are important, but as yet unattached to a particular scene. In short, it has made me more productive, because, like reordering the boxes in my living room and sliding the cleaning supplies and wine glasses into groups on the kitchen counter, it creates a kind of temporary order. Even when just beneath that order is the kind of chaos that makes my head feel cluttered and stifled, grouping and moving the pieces from one place to another provides a semblance of order. Moving the description of a key location into the Fragments section, or sliding an entire scene from chapter six to chapter four frees me to work on the novel as though it were an enormous puzzle; even when I feel like I’ve lost the lid to the puzzle and have no idea what it will look like when I’m done, I still have all the pieces there to move around until they fit.

Whenever I move I always reach a stage at which I stop and look around. I take in the stacks of things that go together and the piles of things I don’t know what to do with and think, it’s not going to get done. But then I remind myself that, one way or another, it always does, and until moving day arrives, the best way to keep my sanity is to keep filling, labeling and stacking each boxes as neatly as possible; clearing out a place to think in the middle of the room, and remembering that one way or another, the pieces will come together in the end.

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