The Eleventh Hour

April 14th, 2008

Phnom Penh — Those who can, write. Those who can’t, read.

And since I once again find my head below water on my new Poke Rafferty book, I’m reading like maniac. As is so often the case when things are screwed up, something good has come out of it. In a used bookstore here I found a copy of The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life, a collection of essays by writers who have been associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

What an amazing bunch of stuff it is. I can’t believe that anyone who writes, or even thinks about writing, won’t treasure this book.

Of course, what we take away from a book is determined by what we needed when we read it. The excerpts that follow are some of the things I needed to hear. What you get out of it might have nothing in common with what I got; it’s that rich.

T. Coraghessan Boyle: That’s the beauty of this addiction – you have to move on, no retirement here, look out ahead, though you can’t see where you’re going. First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page until you can’t see or hear or smell or taste, you have something. Something new. Something of value. Something to hold up and admire. And then? . . . And then you start all over again, with nothing.

Ethan Canin: . . . the progression from detail to epiphany is not a technique used merely for effect on the reader, but this method is, in fact, how a writer discovers his own material.

The changed my writing forever. To put it another way, I had chanced upon the discovery that for the writer it is not moral pondering or grand emotion that are the entrance to a story, but detail and small events. The next story I wrote I started not with the feeling of grandeur that had been my inspiration before, but . . . by imagining a single act: a man going for a swim in San Francisco Bay. . . as I imagined myself plunging into that chilly water, stroking against the hard current, the story itself came to me. . . . the amazing thing was, by the end, I had actually pitched myself up to the same feverish swirl that had been my old inspiration. The difference was that this time the fever was the result of the story and not the cause.

Marilynne Robinson: Good fiction is not false. It is a complex and figurative statement of an intuition of truth. By truth I mean nothing more than a commerce between the mind and the world in which there is alert and lively respect for both parties to the transaction. If we could know as feeling what we can know as fact, our literature would be transformed – into something very like the best in all the books we have always loved.

Fred Lebron: I had no idea what would happen in it from day to day. I just followed the characters. I tried not to get in the way. Sometimes what they did repulsed me, sometimes it surprised me, sometimes it disappointed me. I wanted her to kill him. She never would. I wanted him to rise up and be more of a man. He couldn’t. In a year they finished whatever they were going to do together, and I was finished as well. I had a mess on my hands. It took me three years to edit it. But it was a novel. It was a novel in the sense that it was new to me as I wrote it, that I had no idea what would happen until it did, and that I never dictated what would happen. I just followed it. I followed it to find out.

James Hynes: Another way to put it is to say that the most sublime experience in writing comes when the writer feels as if he is remembering the book, not creating it. It is as if the book is Out There someplace, and the writer is simply recording what he has heard. This is what a writer means when he says, after multiple agonizing drafts, “This is it,” the relief that what’s on the page at last matches the melody only the writer can hear.

There are literally hundreds of essential illuminations like these (essential to me, anyway). And I don’t know what Marilynne Robinson has written, but I’m buying it. Her essay is paralyzingly brilliant, and written with a fineness and clarity I don’t come across more than once a year. If that.

The Eleventh Draft – if you’re a writer or want to be a writer, get it.

20 Responses to “The Eleventh Hour”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    You don’t have to tell me twice. Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite authors. I read HOUSEKEEPING and GILEAD last year and they were both incredible.

    “Those who can, write. Those who can’t, read.”

    I am stuck there. I read two books over the weekend because I am stuck at the 100+ page mark with The Foundling Wheel. I have lots of excuses — there’s been a contractor hammering away in my house for days and he can’t work without blasting his radio, I need to do my taxes, blah blah blah, but the truth is that I’m not sure where to go next and I can’t seem to get quiet enough to find out. Maybe this week…

  2. Larissa Says:

    Thank you for posting all of this. I am going to reread several of these. One of the beautiful things about writer’s block (for me…in some backwards sense) is that it forces me to write about all the things I’ve learned about “how” to write. What you posted here are some really wonderful thoughts and reminders to the souls who live inside us that it is our job not to drag them out of the page but to simply follow them and see where they go. Even if it’s nowhere.

    Thanks for posting. (c:

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, Lisa, I’d never heard of her, although now that you mention “Housekeeping,” it rings a bell somewhere in one of the back corridors. And as little authority I should have to give you advice on “Foundling Wheel,” considering how remiss I am on my own DC book, I know you’ll get it. Go somewhere like a coffee house and just bang your head against your characters until they start to move.

    Larissa, I’m glad you liked them. This book was revelatory for me. And normally I’d agree with you about writer’s block, sitting on some Olympian height and making pronouncements, but at the moment I happen to have it, sort of, and it’s no picnic. So I’ve gone back to writing about my characters, abandoning the effort to haul the story forward for a few days.

  4. Larissa Says:

    hehe. I do too, in a sense. The sarcastic part of my brain has been having a hey day lately reminding me of all those things that I’ve supposedly read about how to cure it but I think the real me was sleeping during that class. (c: Just out of curiosity, you talked about new writer’s throwing in too many characters…and the character’s cats, plants, etc. What, in your opinion, is too many characters? 😀

    Good luck Tim. Also-you have probably read this-but if not, I can recommend Writing Down the Bones by Margaret Atwood. If nothing else, it’s good for a smile and a laugh. (c: Alrighty. Good luck!

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Actually,too many characters is a problem I may have right now. (I know you’re at least half-joking, but this is something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of days.)

    Yesterday I actually arranged the characters in MISDIRECTION into clusters and then created an entirely new set of clusters, using economic status as the organizing principle the first time and something I suppose you could call affinity groupings the second time. No matter how you arrange them, there sure are a lot of them.

    I think most of my stories have a lot of characters and this may be confusing simply because I don’t yet know which of these individuals will play major roles throughout the story. When I’ve finished one, that question is obviously answered, and the characters shake themselves out into leads, supports, walk-ons, etc.

    If I’m communicating confusion, I’m communicating effectively.

  6. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Hi Larissa (via Tim, of course!) Writing Down the Bones is one of my favorite books, but I think it was written by Natalie Goldberg. I know I’ve heard of Atwood, but I don’t know what she’s written. Off to Google-land. . .

  7. Larissa Says:

    I’m there too right now. hehe. And yes, confusion is coming across quite clearly. But it’s ok…I’m stuck at the moment too…mainly because I have this balance to be struck between going off the deep end of “mythology” and keeping things in the right tone. Or at least somewhere near the right tone.

    I made a cast list (again) and I put the first three prominent things I knew about each character next to their names. Just as a way of getting down to the roots of them again and seeing what I can bang together on a base level between them to make something happen. Oy.

    Also, I seem to have this polarized attraction to writing this one character but there’s no good reason for it. They aren’t interesting. They aren’t even human exactly. It’s weird. Part of the problem with the balance. I think it’s a case of investing the wrong amount of power into the wrong character. Or maybe not. they’re fun to write so that’s at least worth something even if right now they are idling–albeit like a dying car but whatever.

    My brain hurts. I have 326 more words to hit the word minimum I shamelessly stole from your writer’s resources and then I’m going to bed.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, Larissa — Sounds like you and I are in similar places. Good to have company. I doubt that the characters “aren’t interesting” because you’re interesting and they are, after all, projections of you in one way or another. Maybe they’re presently uninteresting because you’re trying to fit them into a box they don’t fit into. I think that’s part of my problem, so now I’m the one who’s projecting.

    But you’re absolutely right about getting that word count every day. Otherwise, the whole thing can stop being an agonizing problem and become something you used to worry about, at which point you’ll probably find locks on most of the doors that lead back into the story.

  9. Larissa Says:

    Cynthia-you’re right. My brain took a break without telling me last night. Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite writers too so don’t tell anyone else that I completely assigned the-ahem-wrong book to her…oops. Writing Down the Bones is great. Margaret Atwood’s book is called Negotiating with the Dead-A writer on writing. It’s also great and the one I meant to suggest. Whee. Thanks for the correction. I can highly recommend (I promise, she actually wrote these) Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale (good ol’ classic) and The Blind Assassin. Great work.


    Thanks. 😀

    I got the word count. I don’t really remember what I wrote at this point because I think I was sleep-writing but maybe I’ll find a nice surprise waiting for me hehe. If not, well…whatever. I haven’t posted yet so I can still edit hehe. Though, for the first time, I am done with a chapter before the end of the week. I don’t know how I feel about that.

    I think I think (hehe) I have to reinvent the wheel or in the case the human psyche with these characters instead of just pulling from myself sometimes. While I have to relive a life in some ways because the way Ilse handles things is not how I would handle things, she’s still coming from me therefore I need to give myself the freedom to use the tools I do have.

    Going to go back to bed-kids have been ushered off to school-until breakfast. 😀

  10. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Locks!! Holy $h!t — Okay, I’m getting back to it. Cripes, as if it wasn’t hard enough. Locks…locks, he says!

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Lisa and Larissa — If it’s any comfort at all, I’ve been working on this book for days and days with stomach cramps, convinced that it was a bottomless pit into which I could pour all my energy and experience without ever finding a bottom on which I could begin to build something that worked. I’ve even been waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

    But I sat down every day, and yesterday and today I made a giant leap. I found the center of the story. That doesn’t mean I know where it’s going or what to do about how long it is, or anything, but I know what it’s about and that suggested a whole new organizational principle. So I spent today’s session clarifying that and then began to cut one-third of everything I’ve written.

    And I’m SUPPOSED to be doing something hard, aren’t I? Aren’t I supposed to be doing something I don’t know how to do? How else am I going to grow?

    We’ll see where it goes, but if I can move mine ahead, so can you.

  12. Larissa Says:

    YAAAAY (c:

    That’s awesome. I’m so glad to hear you found a good foothold at last. 😀 I’m about to start pounding keys so we’ll see how it goes.

    Lisa-you’re killin’ me with The Foundling Wheel. I want to know. If that’s any consolation, you have a very interested reader (and many more than me I’m sure). Good luck to you. (c: I’m not even as far in as both of you guys and I’m having issues. Anyone remember The Rescuers (Bianca and Bernard)? I feel like the Albatross in that movie. teehee. Alrighty-good luck and drop me a line sometime. (c:

  13. John Lindquist Says:

    Hi Tim.

    I liken starting a difficult project (or stalling out in the middle of one) to constipation. You have to wait endlessly. Then that magical moment comes when you feel you are finally on top of the matter and can bear down productively.

  14. Sylvia Says:

    This sounds intriguing – I will definitely look to pick up a copy. I’ve got The Writing Life, a collection of articles from the Washington Post, which sounds similar although I wasn’t crazy about the grouping by moral.

    I changed your font on my site – if you know the font you are using here, I’ll set that up for you. In case you should pop by again. 😉

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, John — Yes, and the terrible thing is that you then have to pick through it for the nuggets. (FYI, John Lindquist runs the definitive website for the rock group Bread, which — to show my age — I was associated with.) For those of you who remember Bread fondly, the site is at

    Hi, Sylvia — I agree with you about The Writing Life, and you’ll be pleased (?) to know that there’s no apparent attempt at clustering the essays in “The Eleventh Draft.” And it’s an infinitely superior book.

    Thanks for changing the font on my comment — it looked like Spencerian script by someone with really, really severe astigmatism. And Sylvia’s really striking site — a must for writers — is at

    The Web is so cool.

  16. Andrea Mitchell Says:

    Hi Tim

    Thanks for your comment on my blog today – it was enormously helpful, as all your writings have been since I stumbled across your blog the other day. Keep writing and I will keep reading!

    Have you thought of doing some sort of e-newsletter with writing tips and advice? I would definitely subscribe. You have a great way of describing the writing process and your own experiences with it. Just a thought 🙂 Although you probably have quite enough to worry about with your own writing without taking on another project as well!

    Thanks again


  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Andrea — I’m glad you find this stuff to be of some use. I figured that if I was going to bleed, I might as well try to bleed productively.

    I’ve thought about a newsletter, but don’t know what it would comprise. Any ideas?

    Anybody? What would be most useful in an e-newsletter that came out, say every other week? (Or, if it were short and tightly focused, weekly.)

  18. Larissa Says:

    Yes. (c:

  19. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Tim, I have found everything you’ve written and posted under your writers’ resources and every comment you’ve ever posted to be very useful. I think a newsletter with just about anything writing related that comes from you would be terrific. You’ve got great insights on the psychological aspects of getting through a draft and about craft and you have a very interesting and effective way of communicating your ideas. Anything you’d choose to write would be great.

  20. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Lisa, you’re so amazingly nice. That’s very encouraging, but I need to figure out what kind of format — I mean, are we talking about short essays? Q&A, where I attempt to answer readers’ questions? Brief reviews of writing resources? Writing exercises? Maybe an occasional passage that I think is exceptionally effective (or awful) with what I think is best/worst about it?

    Eeeeek. But it’s kind of interesting.

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