One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. First drafts are incredibly hard to write and often lousy. She is more blunt:
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
So true. My first attempt at Line of Flight, written while taking a “Novel in Progress” course at Grub Street in Boston during the fall of 2014, was a 20,000 word false start. I set the story in Worcester, my home town, in the early months of the Great War, in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Water Street. I had lived up the hill from there when I first moved to the city in 1981, though most traces of its Jewish heritage were long gone by the time I began to write.
My protagonists, Simone Levitsky and her adult daughter, Camilla, entered early, but the story was initially focused on the domestic experience of a war raging overseas that Americans wanted no part of. There was an egotistical musician who taught Camilla to play violin and wanted to win her hand in marriage. She wasn’t interested. There was some tension between mother and daughter, but nothing unusual. I was setting up Camilla to want to escape the claustrophobic community, where everyone knew everyone else’s business, but I had yet to work out how this led to her becoming an ambulance driver in France.
As I was writing a scene of her walking down the street, a pigeon suddenly waddled across her path. I have no idea where it came from. It just appeared. Camilla followed it to a fortune teller who read tarot cards, and from there she got the inspiration to run off to join the War effort.
During the winter break between Grub Street semesters, I was reading more about the War and came across a book about medics behind the trenches. Intrigued, I paused from my novel to write the first draft of a short story about a stretcher bearer who gets lost in No Man’s Land during the 1915 Battle of Loos. (After many revisions, that piece was eventually published four years later as “Nachtmusik” in Chatauqua.)
That short story palette cleanser (much easier to write 5,000 words after slogging through four times that) upended everything. I took a fresh look at my manuscript and realized I was starting in the wrong place, with the wrong plot. Camilla had to escape to France early on, and Simone had to follow and try to bring her back. And Simone had to book passage on the Lusitania’s ill-fated last voyage. Why? Because she was in a hurry, and it was the fastest transatlantic steamer of its day.
I junked everything I’d written and started over. But to my surprise, the pigeon insisted on staying. When I had read sections of that shitty first draft to my fellow workshop students, everyone loved the pigeon scene. I loved it, too. Waiting for the train back to Worcester after class, I began to notice more and more about the pigeons who waddled and strutted and flapped along the platform. I started to see the beauty of these much maligned city denizens. I read about the care and training of pigeons, and about the historic role they have played in wars for millennia. And I learned about Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon in World War I who delivered a message that saved 194 stranded troops, for which he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm.
So, the pigeon stayed. In fact, pigeons play a very important role in Line of Flight. The title refers to the way these remarkable birds are always able to find their way home, probably by sensing the earth’s magnetic fields, as well as orienting via the sun’s position. Over the course of 10 drafts, they continued to fly in and out of scenes and offer rich metaphors. Good that they were so insistent.
Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at evelynherwitz.com.
Image: Max Berger