Learning to Wait

by Laura Yeager

Kafka had a sign above his desk that said “Wait.” He was telling himself not to be too hasty in finishing a story. He is a great teacher for all of us. We writers should put a sign above our desks that says: WAIT.

Lately, I've discovered that Kafka was really right. My fiction is much better if I put the first drafts away for a couple months before I try to "finish" them and send them out. Why is waiting before editing and sending a story out important?

1. The Job Won’t Be Rushed

At the most primary level, if one waits before he edits and strives to publish a draft, the job won't be rushed. In other words, a writer can catch more mistakes in a piece if he's not in a big hurry. Grammar can be perfected. Useless words can be eliminated. Needless repetition can be caught. Dialogue can be tightened. It just makes sense; generally, the more time a writer has to spend on perfecting a piece, the better it will be. To a point. If he spends too much time on a piece, the writer can become obsessed with it, which might cloud his vision. (See #2.)

Case in point. I've often sent a story out quickly, and then, of course, it comes back. Sometimes, a kind editor will have circled my grammar mistakes or misspellings. What humiliation! All of this grief could have been spared if I would have just taken my time with my proofreading, if I would have waited a bit.

2. The Job Won’t Be Clouded By Emotional Attachment

After writing a first draft, the writer is very connected to his “baby.” He feels it is, perhaps, wonderful, perfect in its entirety. He has created the great American story. He is inclined to leave the prose as is. But if the writer puts the story away for a time and comes back to it, he is less emotionally attached to the story. He can see more clearly what's there and what's not there. In short, he's a better editor.

Case in point. I was writing a story about a woman who's fascinated with another woman, not sexually fascinated, just fascinated. As I was creating this fascinated woman, the woman's fascination seeped into me, the creator. My mind became cloudy with emotional attachment. It was not until I read the draft to some students I was teaching that I heard how crazy the woman sounded. Because I allowed for a little time to pass between drafts, I could accurately see the character's personality.

3. The Job Will Be Enhanced By the Power of Forgetting

Creativity experts will tell you: it’s easier to solve a problem if you leave it alone for a while, ignore it, forget it and allow the mind to relax, to stop working. Then, in this relaxed state, answers come. If a writer puts a story away for a couple of months, he forgets it. In this state, so the theory goes, his mind is actively working on the problem, but the writer isn't consciously aware of it. So in forgetting, a writer can actually “finish” a story unconsciously and then return to the story to enter the ending in manually.

Case in point. If I can't think of what comes next in a text, sometimes, I get up and dance around. I forget my work, my problems in the prose, and then, miraculously, when I sit down, sometimes, answers come. Magnify the time it takes to do a little dance by a couple of months. The results can be astonishing.

4. The Job Will Be Completed By a Writer In, Perhaps, A Better Mood

The writer's mood is important while writing. Generally, if a writer is in an upbeat or good mood, the story, the creation, will be better. Now, people will argue with me about this. But I think this rule is true for most people. One does not have to be ecstatic, but at least, neutral. If one is in a bad mood, it is possibly harder to get the prose out. Strive for a neutral to good mood for the most productive writing sessions.

Case in point. Often, I will write late into the night. At times, I become very tired. If I push myself, what I write in this state will usually be bad. I'm in a tired, groggy and often bad mood. But if I come back to the prose in a better state, it's easier to write, and the prose will most likely be better. Common sense, folks.

4. The Job Will Be Done By an Older, Wiser Writer

Let's face it. What happens after two or three months? You're two or three months older. A lot can happen in that amount of time. Lessons, life lessons, can be learned and applied to your fiction. Things can be resolved in your life. When I was in writing school at Iowa State University, Jane Smiley, my teacher, used to tell me, “You don't know how to finish a story because nothing big has ever been resolved in your life.” Boy, was she right. The more I lived, the more I saw life narratives reaching their logical (or illogical) conclusions, the better I got at writing stories, particularly endings. And let's get real here, endings are extremely important in our stories. Maybe the most important parts.

Case in point. I wrote a story about a woman who'd been raped. In the first drafts, she, the narrator, gave readers a lot of details about the rape. At first glance, I thought those details made the rape seem more real. But after putting the story down for many years (yes, years) I grew older and wiser. The details were too much; they rang false. I realized that this narrator would be more likely to be private about this experience. Here's the rub; I never would have been able to write this story the way it should be written if I had not left it alone for years and then come back to it as an older person.

6. The Job Will Be Worth More

It pays to slow down.

Case in point. My biggest, most successful story was one that I wrote in parts, with a huge time lapse between the parts. I wrote Part I in the eighties. Thinking it was finished, I did nothing with it, simply filed it. Then, in the early nineties, I was digging around in my papers. I found this story about Norway. But because so much time had elapsed, I could clearly see what the story was really about. It's true. A job done by an older, wiser writer is a better job. I added Part II to the story, the second half, and sent it out. In the end, it took about five years to finish the story. (Of course, it might only take you five months.) I brazenly sent it, "How to Write a Story," to The Paris Review. An editor there picked it out of the slush pile and published it. I'm told that rarely happens. That was my first published story.

7. The Job Will Be Done By a Writer With a Fresh Perspective

This is the underlying point of all of the concepts above. It has often been said that revision is really “re-vision,” a new way of seeing the piece. This re-vision is invaluable in the writing process. Some even say it’s the most important step.

Case in point. Many times when writing a story, I'll leave out important parts such as dialogue tags. Because of this, it's hard to discern who is saying what. But if I revise the story, look at it with fresh eyes, I can see the confusing aspects and fix them.

Over the years, I've learned that it is best, if possible, to give stories time to germinate. One must wait, like Kafka said to himself. This waiting, this burying of the story, is kind of like planting a seed in the ground. With time, the seed grows into a beautiful, leafy plant. And the draft grows into a fully mature piece.

This article originally appeared in The Writer.