Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cut & Paste

Something remarkable happened today:

I left my computer in my car and I actually got work done for several hours, without interruptions to check email or read the latest on Huffington Post.

And I thought. It's an amazing feeling to concentrate, unhindered, for several hours. Good things happen.

My task for the day was to edit a section of the chapter I've been working on for more than a year. In this chapter, about a Baudelaire poem about memory and love called "Le Balcon," I reference an article in the NYT about memory written by Benedict Cary. "For the Brain, Remembering Is Like Reliving." It ran Sept. 5, 2008. The article talks about an advance in neuroscience: experts can now pinpoint with stunning exactitude where in the brain a memory is being summoned. The idea worked with a point I was making, it made sense, and yet it wasn't quite coming together. That's kind of how the whole chapter worked: good ideas, but no cohesive oomph.

So the chapter has been in various states of disarray for the better part of a year. I've added and cropped and prodded and sighed in exasperation. I put it down and wrote three other chapters in the meantime. Because this is the chapter that matters the most to me. I mean, Baudelaire is the dude. How could I write him off or do a half-assed job, when I've been obsessing over him since high school.

Well, after a long enough mental break, I felt it was time to pick it up again. My initial strategy would be to just reread a printout of my old draft, calmly and indifferently, like an outsider.

As I read, I found myself wanting to reorder a few pages, so I numbered them to have the original order and started playing around with the flow. Then, I started seeing breaks within pages, where a paragraph in the middle of page 11 went better at the bottom of page 3, and so on. So I cut up the pages where it made sense, and I physically restructured the chapter.

I always do this, on my computer. Highlight entire paragraphs, erase them with a swift CTRL-X and then splice them back together with CTRL-V. The problem is that on the computer, it's so easy, and so tentative, that I can come up with 7 versions of where a certain argument could go. It's noncommittal.

But with the physical process, there was a sense of finality. It was surgical. I only cut when I was sure I wanted to, because otherwise I'd have thousands of sentences fluttering around this too-air conditioned Peet's.

[image one via bibliowhining, image two via The Ed Techie]

1 comment:

  1. Hey, thanks for using my image! It's refreshing to know there are others out there who stick to the more old-fashioned editing methods. Good luck with your work.