What You Were Looking for in the First Place: Stacy Schiff on the Writing Process

The Pulitzer-winning author of “Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)” talks about revision, misery, and research in completing a book

The following remarks were presented by Stacy Schiff at the 2016 The Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant celebration. Each year, The Whiting Foundation presents writers of “deeply researched and imaginatively composed nonfiction” grants of $35,000 to complete their work. You can read about the 2016 winners here.

If you have ever written a book, or edited one, or lived in proximity of anyone who has — which is to say, if you are standing in this room — you know there are three perfectly distinct phases to the process. There is the misery of beginning, the misery of the middle, and the misery of the end. There is of course also the misery of having finished, but let’s leave that a secret among us for now. Hemingway may have summed up all this merriment best in a different context: As he put it, or is said to have put it: “When you start out writing, it’s fun for you and hell on the reader. By the end, it’s hell for you and fun for the reader.”

There is the misery of beginning, the misery of the middle, and the misery of the end. There is of course also the misery of having finished, but let’s leave that a secret among us for now.

I think we can agree that the most exquisite torture is of the nearly-but-not-quite-there variety. By definition, your advance is now depleted. The patience of your family and friends is as well. And so, for that matter, are you. Your deadline is very likely also trailing somewhere behind you. You all know Douglas Adams’s formulation: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Somewhere around the midpoint of any manuscript — a point that by no means identifies itself as such at the time, any more than did the Middle Ages — you hit up against the Zeno’s paradox of writing. You can’t seem to get there from here; the end slips irretrievably out of sight. As with exile, or nostalgia, or unrequited love, you find yourself engaged with a place you cannot reach. Every runner knows that last lap to be not only a lap, but an eternity. Along the sidelines everyone is saying finish strong, finish hard, you’re nearly there, and of course you ARE almost there. You’re not asking anything you didn’t ask of yourself 2600 meters or 300 pages earlier, except that now everything is more difficult, really just narrowly possible. In defiance of the laws of physics, you have not built up momentum. You have built up drag. And debt. And pesky unanswered questions.

For whatever reason I had my most acute case of this in writing about Ben Franklin’s years in France. The finish line regularly receded, as the material expanded out from under me. I would calculate that I needed two more weeks to finish a chapter only to find three weeks later that I needed another four. For once in my life, I had more to say than I thought I did. The family joke became that it was taking me longer to return Franklin to Philadelphia than it had taken Franklin, sailing against the wind and on an 18th century ship.

As I see it, there are two particular complications with a book of creative nonfiction, the first being that you’re attempting something original. Which means you don’t yet know what you’re going to find or — God forbid — what you’re going to think. The time for those revelations does not figure in a publishing contract, founded on a convenient fallacy: Editor and writer having agreed on who their unborn child is going to be when he grows up. For the Franklin book I had moved our family to France, so as to work in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The problem came not with the endless material, all of it handwritten, some of it moldy, parts of it not yet decoded. Or with the fact that France being France, you could order up no more than five files at a time. Or with the pleasures of reading 18th century lengthy reports dashed off at high speed, at Versailles, by candlelight, on microfilm. The problem came with the fact that our stay coincided with a presidential election season, which meant that for weeks, on whatever days suited them, the archivists walked out on strike.

The time for those revelations does not figure in a publishing contract, founded on a convenient fallacy: Editor and writer having agreed on who their unborn child is going to be when he grows up.

These are the extended-attention-span books, the long-incubators, the slow-cookers, in part because of such surprises along the way. Only after I had signed on to write a life of Véra Nabokov did I discover that the Nabokov papers, meant to be at the New York Public Library,where they reside today, were then still in the basement of the Nabokovs’ son in Switzerland. Which is to say that the months I had expected to spend on 42nd Street I instead spent on Lake Geneva, considerably less convenient and incomparably more expensive. Another surprise: Dmitri Nabokov liked to eat out. He liked to eat out a lot. And he especially liked for me to pick up the check. (Thank you, Random House.) Then there was the afternoon when Dmitri asked if I might go pants shopping with him. I demurred; I had too much to do in the archive. Each minute mattered; every time I breathed in Switzerland I felt I could see my advance evaporating in the silvery air. Sullenly, pointedly, Dmitri said: “My mother would have gone pants shopping with me.” Off we went.

Here’s another clue as to why these things take so long. I was well into the Nabokov project when a manila envelope arrived, the response to my Freedom of Information request for the couple’s FBI files. I tore it open to read: “Subject entered Macy’s and headed to the book department. He spent some time walking around the displays. Finally bought a copy of Wind, Sand, and Stars.” Saint-Exupéry had been the subject of my first book; one always feels a little proprietary toward one’s subject, even if he is only one’s ex-subject. I was deeply touched that Nabokov was reading Saint-Exupéry. That was the first thought. The second was: Vladimir Nabokov in Macy’s? This was of course not the Nabokov file. It was one of several I had requested for Saint-Exupéry six years earlier, for a book long since published. Do not ask me why Saint-Exupéry bought a copy of his own book. But admit it: You’ve done it too.

How time-intensive is this work? Here is the first line of Véra: “Véra Nabokov neither wrote her memoirs nor considered doing so.” Those ten words represent three years in the archives.

“Véra Nabokov neither wrote her memoirs nor considered doing so.” Those ten words represent three years in the archives.

And then, of course, the second complication: It’s all in the endgame. The bulk of the value comes in that final effort, those late-day tweaks, additions, epiphanies. They’re what make a good book a great one, a well-written one a gem. The excruciating final minutes of any workout are said to be the ones that matter, except that in this sport they last months if not years. You really can’t finish unless: You’ve read all of Cotton Mather’s library. You wrestle once again with that stubbornly uncooperative source. You learn how to fly an aircraft last flown in 1937. You polish your first paragraph for the 200th time. You rewrite the entire manuscript, cutting the boring parts. Because of course only at the end do you at last figure out what you were looking for in the first place.

Stacy Schiff is the author of, among other books, Cleopatra: A Life, and The Witches: Salem, 1692, both published by Little, Brown

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