Clearing the Land, Building a Stone Wall: The First Two Drafts of a Novel

by Jody Lisberger, Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction. 

More and more, as I revise the first draft of my novel, I begin to see my metaphor for writing change. The first draft felt like bushwhacking to me, or maybe slash and burn would be a better picture. In the first draft, I did anything that would allow me to clear the path of the novel, which meant working acre by acre, so to speak, but not in the way one might expect. For me, the process involved clearing the acre immediately in front of me, scything and hacking it down to where I could sort of see the shape of the land, but could see only so far because the next acre had to be cleared before I could really see where I was going. I didn’t expect to have to clear the next acre before I could turn back to pay more attention to the first acre, but this forward and back motion seemed to describe my process: Two steps forward, one step back. First cutting the trees and brush and grass down to knee level (at least) to be able to see through to the next swath that awaited my clearing. Then I repeated the process with the next swath, bushwhacking whatever snags, briars, trees, or tangle came before me, not worrying too much about the details here, either, since I knew I would first step back to the first acre, then push ahead to clear the third acre, then back to the second, then forward to the fourth, and back to the third, each time first opening the acre in front so I could see better where I was going and what my land looked like. What it was asking of me. Each time I moved back, I was able (or so I thought) to work the first clearing much better, down to the ground, better to walk through and have some footing, more gracious and inviting. More beckoning toward the next acre. Over and over again I bushwhacked then refined my way. So much for clearing a country.

The second draft feels entirely different. More like building a very long stone wall, and not only because there’s an important stone wall in my novel, the one the dog races through with a bloody mole in her mouth, but because working with each scene and section feels like the slowest, sometimes most arduous, stone-by-stone task of building, shifting, transporting rocks to another place, standing in front of the wall every morning and looking at the sections I’ve completed and the section I need to complete—today—and feeling how beautiful a stone wall is, yes, and yet how long it takes to build and how heavy the rocks are. Perhaps you’ve built a stone wall? I don’t mean with cement between the rocks, but the kind of stone wall that has air inside it as it makes use of the natural shapes and sizes of the many varied rocks, nudging them next to each other, finding the right shape, the perfect fit. Something that will stand proudly on its own for years or maybe centuries.

If you’ve built a stone wall (or carried sand in a full bucket, another form of stone), you know how much each stone weighs—some easy to get your hands around, to know where to place. Others incredibly difficult to crowbar out of the soil, or crowbar and wedge into place up higher on the wall. The thing about writing a novel, for better and for worse, is that you’re all by yourself building your stone wall. Rock by rock. Inch by inch. Section by section. It can be back-breaking, this work of lifting and moving the rocks, filling a wheelbarrow with rocks, or pushing a wheelbarrow filled with rocks from way over there to way over here, or way over here to way over there. But the thing is, you’re already entirely invested in the process. You wouldn’t be fool enough to start a stone wall if you weren’t equally determined to finish it. Sure you come to love and hate the moments of resting, of staring at the stone wall and seeing how far you’ve come, or not—a kind of mediation all on its own. But you also know it’s an exercise in persistence and love—this is how stone walls get built. Sure, there’s the string that goes across the top, tied around one tree at one end and a tree or a post at the other, marking the beginning of your property and the end, and the height you need to achieve. But mostly there’s the slow and steady pace of building a stone wall rock by rock, section by section. A wall that in the end, you know, will stand on its own, each rock balanced and wedged with another. Or so you hope. And so I imagine.

I laugh to think of advice one could give for building stone walls. As if such advice can be helpful to us novelists. Move one stone at a time. When a stone won’t move, or you can’t get it to budge, maybe it’s not supposed to move. Or maybe it’s too heavy to move on your own. (Get help?) Maybe it just (right, just) requires patience and a willingness to wait and see where it will go in the end, if it goes at all. How far (long) can you stand this process of building a stone wall?

Sometimes you’ll want to kick the wall, or kick a rock, even though you know it will hurt you more than you can hurt it.

What’s perhaps most useful to remember? Eating dirt, when it flies off a rock, won’t kill you. Smashed fingers are par for the course. And in a few cases, you can always move a rock to a new place tomorrow, assuming it isn’t wedged in so deeply or tightly that you need to leave it where it is. But then you can always take away all the other rocks around it and rebuild that section of the wall. But already, then, you might be moving on to the third draft, which to me doesn’t at all feel like building a stone wall, but more like trimming hedges, some of them way back, and pulling out vines that don’t belong.

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