Friday, July 31, 2009

Harriet Chessman's Guest Post: Two Achilles Heels

I have this landscape on my computer screen – a photo my son Micah took at Arastradero Preserve.

Each day, once I’ve read the newspaper, walked my collie, had breakfast, cleaned the kitchen, taken a shower, mailed some letters, worried about the broken dishwasher . . . once I’ve almost spent my whole morning, that is, immersed in my life, I sit down at my desktop and see this beautiful, simple landscape, and remember my writing.

This is, then, my first Achilles Heel as a writer: Life.

As for my second, well, come with me on this little walk.

Something I love about the photo is the path, curving up the slope to blue sky. It suggests what I search for in my writing: a clear path for my story. The writing process, for me, is this search. I try one route, and it ends in sand; I try another, and I land in a marsh, feet stuck, mosquitoes biting.

Of course, what I say to any writer in a similar predicament is: Keep trying! If this path didn’t work, try another! It’s the only sane advice, and yet it’s difficult advice to take.

As someone who started to write fiction after a first career, I still feel like someone new to this process. I look for signs; keys to the map; the best routes to follow.

So this is my second, my most vulnerable Achilles heel: Story.

Description, yes! Lyrical passages on someone’s face or the weather, I can do that! But finding my story? Argh!

I think I’m getting better at it. That is, I’m gaining more patience. If I have to cut 150 pages, so be it. Sometimes I just have to slice my way through underbrush and even damage some very beautiful mature trees, until – incredibly – one day I look up and see a simple path. A beginning, middle, and end. And even though I’m only on page 50, for the seventh time, I am on my way.

It’s important to note that I can’t reach this point on my own entirely. I’ve been lucky in a few brilliant, insightful manuscript readers: my daughter Marissa; my spouse Bryan; other writers; my wise agent Priscilla. Just last week a fellow writer, Maud Carol Markson, led me by the hand out of a wide marsh indeed.

Such readers help me clarify what this landscape is through which I’m trying to move, and who is coming with me on the journey. They help me understand who my characters are as people – and this, after all, is the key. A work of fiction can move forward compellingly once the characters become profoundly real to the writer. Wonderful words: “I think your character is --- ,” or “I think your novel’s about ---,” upon which I always say, “Wait a minute; let me write that down.” My heels feel stronger already.

I’d love to know what your own particular Achilles heel is, in writing or in life. I wish you a fruitful journey!

Harriet Chessman


  1. As always, Harriet, you write so beautifully about writing.

  2. I've just this minute come back from a long walk, Harriet, and I've passed beside the ocean (big surf today, not good for the anglers after perch), through fog, under blue sky, and through town, all the way following paths familiar to me but puzzling out that other path through what I'm writing now. So it's wonderful to read your post and see the simple path that inspires you. Serendipity? I don't know. I just know I feel like I have company!

  3. my achilles heel in writing is that i tend to allow the ever-present and frequently dominating notion of the final destination to overshadow, often hinder, the wonderfully elaborate process of creating pathways to the end. i can't help but look ahead towards the blue sky when i ought to concentrate on the trail underfoot.

  4. Thank you to all!

    Kate, I think sometimes about something William James wrote: along the lines of "Complicate the matter as much as you like, it has got to simplify." For me, the "simplicity" only can come, I guess, after MUCH complication --- and usually, when I think of a project, it's only about 2/3 of the way through the entire process (sometimes 1/2 of the way through the novel) that I actually can see any path at all!

    Maggie, wow, I too worry so much about the final destination. Thank you for this -- you're right, too much focus on / worry about a destination can hinder the process. In novel-writing, for me, once I can stay in the present and look at the trail underfoot, I SLOW DOWN, slow down, slow down . . .and that's when I can live in more "real time" with my characters.

    thank you all for your company on this journey!

  5. So wonderful-- so true about writing, about life.

  6. pyaeger@umich.eduAugust 4, 2009 at 3:24 PM

    Oh Harriet--even though I'm an academic writer, my Achilles heel is also story. I have lots of ideas and insights--but making them into a pattern or tale so that a reader will come long with me--no. That often resists me. I love the moment of illumination-coming to a clearing in the forest where the light starts shaking down and some tiny animal scurries across my feet and I can see. But when I write, I need more. The animal has to stay--and that's hard as it veers on and off the path. My notes represent all these sightings, but not the animal's dance, its meals, its defecation.

    I've just lost a parrot, so I'm thinking about gone-away animals, but the point holds true: I can find the animality of the word, the sentence, and sometimes even the paragraph, but an academic story also needs fur and fins, the wings of a plot.

  7. One thing I loved about this post was the passage about spending your morning immersed in "life" before you get to writing. In summer--the only time I get to write seriously--I have spent time castigating myself for not beginning to write at 5:00 a.m. or some other such hour. But life deserves its due--it, too, is important, and when the letters are mailed and the dishwasher is fussed over, then the writing is there. Thanks for writing this.

  8. Patsy, you of all people are brilliant at creating a story with wings!! Among all the scholarly writing I've ever read, yours has such a genuine voice, and you bring your reader right along with you. I AM so very sorry about your parrot, though! and I hope its story is a good one indeed.

    Pat -- oh, yes, I definitely can't start writing each day til at LEAST 10 a.m. I love clearing other stuff away first. Of course, the list of "to do" never ends, but there's something in the knowledge that my household ship is afloat (largely) that makes it ok to start writing.

  9. Harriet, you always talk about complicated things with such beautiful simplicity! Thanks so much for these thoughts--no time to write more right now, but I hope to find you here again soon!


  10. This thoughtful essay and its responses, as well as the original photograph, make me think of one of Willa Cather's favorite quotations, one I often think about when writing: "Le but n'est rien; le chemin, c'est tout" (Michelet). I recently read a powerful novel by Dana Reinhardt, The Things a Brother Knows, in which two brothers walk from Boston to Washington, D.C. The younger brother tells himself, as he puts one foot in front of the other, "It is a marathon, not a sprint." I think about this too, while writing, and I wonder if for Dana Reinhardt this novel was also in some way about the process of writing fiction.