Note: Today's post is by Kathy Crowley, who blogs at Beyond the Margins
“Thus, we notice after exercising our muscles or our brain in a new way, that we can do so no longer at that time; but after a day or two of rest, when we resume the discipline, our increase in skill not seldom surprises us. I have often noticed this in learning a tune; and it has led a German author to say that we learn to swim during the winter, and to skate during the summer.”
A long time ago I worked in a neurobiology lab. I was a few years out of college and trying to support myself while I completed my medical school requirements (having frittered away my college years on things like literature, and writing, and philosophy, and Comparative Slave Societies… I was very liberal with my liberal arts.)
My job involved unpacking live frogs (delivered by UPS in boxes filled with a damp man-made moss), developing photomicrographs, washing beakers, incubating "quicks" (chicks with a dash of quail) and collecting data. This is how I collected data: I would place a frog under a clear plastic dome specially outfitted (by me) with thumbnail shaped cups spaced at measured intervals around the outside. I would then drop a live, squirming meal worm into one of these cups and record how quickly and accurately a frog turned and jumped for the worm.
(A little dull for me, but imagine how frustrating for the frogs.)
When I left that job and headed for medical school, my boss gave me a gift – a first edition of William James’ Psychology: The Briefer Course. His inscription read: “One of the greatest neurobiologists – and wisest men – of our time.” The quote at the opening of this post is one of many that I love from this book, and I think of it often. Most recently, I have thought about it in terms of . . . The Drawer.
We all know about The Drawer. It is the place (physical or virtual) where our writing sits quietly while we try to figure out if it’s as bad as it seemed when we dropped it in there.
Kind and Patient Friend: “How’s your novel coming along?”
Writer: “Oh, I decided to put it in the drawer for a while. You know, get a little distance.”
The accepted wisdom on the drawer is that it allows us to return to our own writing with a more critical and editorial eye – the kind of eye we use when we read the work of others.
I don’t disagree, but I think it’s a little more than that. When we close the drawer and put the project out of mind – or THINK we are putting it out of mind – another kind of work begins. Previously dormant neurons yawn and stretch their little dendrites*. After tossing back cup or two of dopamine, they slip on their glial sheaths and get started -- making connections, clarifying ideas, strengthening characters, creating nuance. So that when we re-open the drawer and pull out the manuscript, we get not only distance and perspective, but also more depth and complexity.
Maybe it's time to rehabilitate the drawer, start thinking of it as an active rather than passive part of the process. Not a sign of stalling out or hitting a dead end, but instead its own stage -- a stage that happens to look very different from the writing/editing/revising stages.
There are writers who write something once and it’s done. (I know – it isn’t fair that they exist, but they do.) For me, though, and for most writers, it doesn’t work that way. When I start my next novel, I will pencil some drawer time into my writing calendar (which I don't have yet, but I might someday, after I finish alphabetizing my spices and reading all the emails my kids’ school sends out every week). When the time comes, I’ll drop my little tadpole of a book in, then wait patiently to see what hops out.
Any thoughts on the drawer out there?
*No real neurobiologist would ever describe neurons as "stretching their little dendrites" -- but you probably knew that.
[Note from Livia: I'm going to start using the phrase "stretching their little dendrites". If you enjoyed this post, check out Beyond the Margins.]