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I’ve been thinking and writing in scenes this week, which brings back memories of Jack Cady.

Once upon a time, before I was published, I became aware that I rushed through scenes, sketching them out like line drawings, with little detail, and never entirely completing them. I decided to take a class in writing the short story. Surely that’s where I’d learn to take my time with each sentence. Jack Cady was teaching it, a writer I’d never read, but it was at a convenient time and place, so I registered. I’ll always be grateful for that leap of faith.

The class met once a week. For the first week he told us to work on one paragraph, a scene, the same paragraph/scene for an hour each day, deepening it, adding detail, thinking about what else we might say about it, what else it could do. And we couldn’t go beyond a page with it, double spaced. At first I thought I’d go mad. But by the end of the week I had learned patience. I’d learned how to embody the scene, be there, experience it, visually, intellectually, emotionally, kinetically. I looked forward to that hour each day.

I’ve been working on a particular, important scene this week (it’s much longer than a page, but I’m also working on it far longer than 1 hour a day), putting it together, sitting back, thinking about how to enrich it, bring it to life. I’ve trashed it a few times and begun again. At first I’d forgotten to set the scene, give my characters a landscape in which to move about, so it was all dialogue. Clever dialogue floating out in space. Little of that dialogue is left, but it’s there in a subtext in my mind. And now my characters are moving about in an environment just detailed enough that a reader can envision it but not get sidetracked by it. Lots of balancing work.

I get high on writing like this. I’m in a wonderful, peaceful space all day. Deep engagement. It’s tough to give myself this space when a deadline looms. But I know that rushing through the scenes isn’t going to help the manuscript. When I’m rushing, I start writing what EM Forster called story: “The king died, and then the queen died.” But a novel calls for a plot, which, according to Forster is: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” Now the why is in there, the heart of the matter.

That’s my problem with Anne Lamott’s theory of the first draft—write anything, just get it down. In theory I agree with this and I really really wish I could work like that. ( I am an Anne Lamott fan.) But when I use that approach I create scenes so sketchily written that on rereading weeks or months later I am left guessing at their significance. I need to go quite deeply into each scene before I move on, fleshing it out sufficiently so that on the next round I see what I was after. Thanks, Jack.

Jack Cady ’s gone now, but his teaching lives on in all the writers who studied with him. More of his gems later.

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