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Vendela Vida is the author of the critically acclaimed novels And Now You Can Go and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, as well as Girls on the Verge, a journalistic exploration of female coming-of-age rituals. She is a founding coeditor of The Believer magazine.
One aspect of my writing process, concerning paper products and dental floss:by Vendela Vida, author of And Now You Can Go I had a friend in grad school whose writing process I watched with disbelief. Once, when moving between New York City boroughs, she stayed with me for two weeks and, in order to write, she set up her computer on the stove in my kitchen (it was a small apartment), placed her printer on the floor by the oven, and pulled up a stool. She’d spend each day writing one page of a story on her computer, and by evening she’d print out a final version of that page. She followed this same pattern for eleven days, at which point the story was done. She printed out the eleventh page, placed it behind the others, stapled it, and sent it off. Between the start and the end of the story she’d used a total of eleven sheets of white Luminous White Hammermill paper.I was so befuddled. Where was her internal struggle? I wondered. To say nothing of the external evidence of this struggle Where was her ream of Ultimate Lime paper? Where were her shoe boxes?You see, at the time, this was my writing process: I’d compose approximately fifty pages, print them out, scribble what turned out to be illegible comments and corrections in the margins of the print-out, try to decipher those comments when I entered them into the computer file, print out the new version, decide I needed to get rid of twenty pages, print out the new abbreviated version, decide I needed to add five pages, write those five pages, print those five pages out, make marks, enter the marks, add the new five pages to the others, and then print out the new draft in its entirety. I kept track of the various drafts by printing each new version on different colored paper: Championship Gold, Cherry, Pastel Lilac, Bright Violet, Pastel Salmon, Ultra Bright Lemon—the colors of an ugly floral arrangement bought at a supermarket.I’d use whatever was around to tie each draft in its own bundle: ribbons left over from wrapping Christmas presents, dental floss, an old shoelace with dirt clumps clinging to it like pendants on a charm bracelet. Then I’d take the bundles and stack them in old boot boxes. This was back when I seemed to wear boots a lot. I’m not sure how the habit of tying the drafts in bundles originated. I remember being seven and going through my mother’s closet and finding old letters addressed to her, all tied together with a red ribbon. They were letters from my father. A smaller stack with a frayed robin’s egg-blue bow contained love letters from the man she dated before him. I can’t help but think my storage habits have something to do with hers.My writing process has changed little over the years. My novel And Now You Can Go, which is being published at around 200 pages, was sculpted out of another, longer novel that was about 450 pages. That longer novel took me two years to write and one week to realize that it wasn’t right. When I was reading the final version of that longer book, however, I found myself repeatedly returning to and rereading a scene in which one of the characters was being held up at gunpoint. I knew that there was something there. So I started a new novel using that scene as a starting point. Once I had that beginning, something clicked into place. I wrote quickly, writing for whole days at a time, afraid that if I stopped I’d lose the story.So I threw away 437 pages that I doubt I’ll ever use again. Various incarnations of that novel are tied in myriad colored bundles, stored in a box that I think once housed a large globe. Whenever I tell one of my high school students at 826 Valencia (the non-profit writing center in San Francisco where I teach) that they should consider cutting a paragraph or two and they’re reluctant, I say, "Listen, I cut 437 pages of a novel." They say, "What?" and look at me like I’m a lunatic, and then end up cutting at least a page of their story. If for no other reason than sympathy.I’m now working on a new novel that’s set in Lapland, in the north of Scandinavia. I went there last summer to research it and while there I encountered lots of reindeer and Sami, the region’s indigenous people—their history is similar to that of our Native Americans. I’m still on the first draft of this novel and I expect that I’ll toss away most of what I’m writing. Fortunately, most of those boxes of past drafts of other stories and books are in a storage unit in Brooklyn, or in my parents’ garage, so I don’t have to see all those beribboned colored paper bundles. Instead, I can set out a single ream of Hammermill Natural White paper on my desk and almost manage to convince myself it’s all I’ll need to finish the book.
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