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January 23rd, 2013


Second Chapters

Writing a first chapter is like tracking down the perfect outfit for a big occasion, then knowing the hem needs to be adjusted, or the right scarf found, while already having second or seventeenth thoughts. Did the scarf change everything, and should I start again? A second chapter is more forgiving. We’re older, and the outfit doesn’t seem quite as important, and if it’s a little bit wrinkled, so what? We’ve set up the characters, and can let them speak. A second chapter doesn’t have all the bother of pulling in readers with neither too much nor too little information, but it’s time to develop what’s at stake in the small world we created. We’ve brought readers through, but can we keep them? Maybe we should get out the iron one more time.

Like every chapter, my second one will go through a lot of drafts. But because it’s not quite so slippery or delicate as chapter one, this is the place I keep coming back to when I stall on my way forward, peering for threads I might be able to use. Looking back over my own work is a little like reading as a diligent English major. Themes or symbolism can pop into view. Back when I was in college, I never wanted to take this too far, and I don’t want to take it too far as a writer, either. It’s good to carry maybe a plastic toy shovel, not a killer spade. And the trick is to not bring in the vocabulary of someone who’s infatuated with literary theory, but to register, say, the differences that might come from describing someone’s hair as silver, tin-colored, or some other variation on metallic, make a choice, and move on, trying not to leave footprints of an author who thinks too much. Sometimes a rose is a rose, a bird is a bird, spring is a season, and swings, seesaws, and slides are just part of a playground.

Whenever we look back we’re likely to find something new, the way something may emerge from memories of someone’s long ago words, pauses, or gestures. Most of us grow up with shadow stories, and perhaps ten or twenty years later think, Now I get it. Let’s hope understanding as a writer isn’t quite that slow, but something can always be spotted from stepping back, like a new feeling that rises from an old photograph.