Only Connect

Alice McDermott

Spring 2017

Here’s the simplest advice I can offer to a writer in the midst of composing a novel: for God’s sake, read what you’ve already written. Read it often—daily, if need be. Read it all. Read it thoroughly. Read it always with a keen and critical eye.

I suspect this advice applies to the creation of short stories and poems and plays as well, but it’s my experience that the novelists among us are the most reluctant to follow it. We like to say, “Well, I’ve finished the first six chapters of my novel.” Or, “I only have three more chapters to write.” We like to feel the heft of our “first two hundred pages,” warm from the printer—like fresh-baked bread, like a bundled up newborn—and say, “Here’s what I’ve completed so far.” “Completed,” meaning, of course, finished, perfected. Don’t have to read it again. Don’t have to change a thing.

Until the work of your heart and your mind and your hands meets the printer’s work of paper and ink and binding, your novel is a fluid thing, an unpredictable thing, and every page, every paragraph, every sentence you add to it runs the delightful risk of changing everything that has come before. Read what you’ve already written before you add something new. And then read it again in light of what’s been added. Add more. Repeat.

As a college sophomore I took a Shakespeare course from a mild-mannered professor who looked more like an insurance salesman than an academic: crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses, plaid sport coat. On the first day of class, he introduced the syllabus by saying, “We will be rereading the Henry plays,” which caused some consternation in the ranks. This was a lower level, introductory Shakespeare course. When a student pointed out that many of us had not yet read the history plays even once, the professor listened patiently, nodded, and said, “Exactly. In this course we will be rereading the Henry plays.”

A year later, I took another class in the History plays at a university in England. In this class, the professor actually looked the part: long nose, wild white hair, black scholastic robe, and sneering Oxford accent. He began by asking us how many times we had read the plays: once? twice? three times? He didn’t seem to want a show of hands (the British students around me just nodded when their number was called). Then he looked down at his lecture notes—I don’t think he ever looked up from them again—and said, “Your education hasn’t even begun.”

In the years since, I have indeed reread the Henry plays, read about them, even brought bits and pieces of them into the classroom. I’ve seen the various film versions, and I’ve seen the plays performed—in New York, in London, in San Diego. I recall a particularly affecting performance of Henry IV Part 1 at the Shakespeare theater in Washington, D.C., in 2006, just about the time the U.S. was coming to terms with the fantasy of Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction.

Alice McDermott is the author of eight novels, the latest of which is The Ninth Hour.

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