Work in Progress #20: Are You Finished Yet With Your Emily Post Biography?

Are you finished yet“Are you finished with that book you’re working on yet?”

It’s a question I get asked over and over again. I suspect that, lurking behind that question are other unspoken ones, like “Do you perhaps have procrastination issues?” or “Are you really writing a book or just putting us all on?” It’s hard to explain all the nuts and bolts that go into a long nonfiction work (though goodness knows I’ve tried in these “Work in Progress” blogs!). So maybe I’ll refer you to my previous 19 blogs and answer a different question instead…not about why it’s taking so long but about why it’s a good thing it is taking so long.

Soon after beginning my biography of Emily Post, I found a great incident to begin the book with – an example of Emily really misbehaving as a very young child. It was perfect.  My angle was “Ah, if she’d only known when she misbehaved that she would grow up to write an etiquette book.” I had no intention of going back and changing one word of that flawless beginning. But as I was working on chapter 11, reading over my notes and research material on Emily at age 60-something, I stumbled on some material that changed and deepened my thinking about that childhood anecdote in a startling way. So I’m pausing in the middle of chapter 11 to go back to chapter 1 and take a completely different tack with the incident that had earlier seemed so obvious and straightforward to me.

It can take years to understand a lived life, to keep company with superficial facts and details long enough for them to begin to inform one another and reveal the not-readily-apparent undercurrents. Perhaps it’s the case that all of this stuff I’ve been telling you about in these blogs is nothing more than busy work, a way to pass the time while I’m letting the obvious stuff simmer into something richer and more meaningful. Except that it wouldn’t be properly simmering if I weren’t stirring the pot, re-thinking the ingredients, adding a pinch here and another there…going away for a day or a year… and then coming back to sample the result.

It blows my mind that Edith Wharton, in the writing of her breakthrough novel The House of Mirth, didn’t have the luxury of going back and adjusting her beginning as I do.  Wharton’s 1905 novel was serialized in a magazine so each chapter was set in stone the moment the monthly publication came out.  No re-thinking, no adjusting.  (Evidently I haven’t reached Edith Wharton’s stature as a writer yet!)

Am I finished with the book I’m working on?  No.  And not because I haven’t reached the last word of the manuscript but because everything I’ve written – and will write in the closing three chapters – is still simmering and not quite fully blended into a deep, satisfying whole.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

Connie Nordhielm WooldridgeBiography | View

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