Ann Packer on Revisions--in Life and Writing

How do you know when a story is really done?

Posted Apr 05, 2011

Ann Packer, author of the critically acclaimed bestsellers The Dive From Clausen's Pier and Songs Without Words, has a new collection of connected short stories that deal with her familiar themes of broken relationships, loss, and renewal. Here's more from Ann:

Jennifer Haupt: What was the starting point for Swim Back to Me? Did you begin with a theme for the entire collection, a specific character?

Ann Packer: I began with the story "Her Firstborn," which I wrote between drafts of my novel The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Over the next few years, I continued working on that story and also wrote "Molten." Eventually, I saw that in a process that ran parallel to writing two novels, I was writing a collection of stories, and after my second novel, Songs Without Words, was published, I devoted myself to its contents. I never had a conscious theme, but like my novels this book is largely about the fractures that occur in close relationships and the ways in which loss remakes us over and over again.

JH: You write both novels and short stories. Do you have a preference? Do you use different writing muscles with each?

AP: I enjoy both. The difference has mostly to do with time-with a novel there is a long period of immersion (with various points of coming up for breath, between drafts, when I ask friends to read for me and give me feedback). With stories the immersion is shorter, though hardly short; most of these stories took a year or longer to complete.

JH: Tell me about your writing process. Are you a solitary writer, do you use a writing group? A critique partner?

AP: I am part of a great writers' group, and my process is to work in solitude, without feedback, until I have a complete draft, and then to ask my group to read and comment. Then I start the process over again, making use of the discussions I've had with the group and the clarity I've gained by being away from the piece for a little while.

JH: You rewrote The Dive From Clausen's Pier, your first novel, nine times. Did you do as many rewrites with these short stories?

AP: Revision is definitely a big part of my life, but I'm not sure I did any of these stories quite that many times. I think six or seven is probably more accurate. Of course, during the writing of a single draft I'm revising constantly as well.

JH: When/how do you know when a story is truly "done"?

AP: As I move from early drafts to later ones, the kinds of changes I'm making are mostly small and get smaller, though occasionally I will surprise myself by uprooting the entire thing fairly late in the process. Generally, though, one signal that I'm winding down is that I'm changing words and punctuation, and sometimes changing them back.

That said, being done is really a feeling. I've reached the end of a process that begins in part with the question, What am I doing in this story (or novel or novella)? When I'm finished, I've to some degree answered that question for myself.

JH: What is the one true thing you learned from writing Swim Back to Me?

AP: That's a tough one! I'm always learning to have faith in the imagination--to use moments of frustration or indecision as signals that I may need to step away from the work for a little while and that if I do, I will come back with new ideas. As a younger writer, I was very scared if I had a blank day. Now I know that blankness is part of creativity, a pause in the process by which unconscious ideas make their way to awareness. So I think I learned that again. "Walk for Mankind" died and came back to life because I was able to leave it alone for a while and thus realize that I needed a different main character. "Things Said or Done" gave me a lot of trouble until I let myself stop pushing in one direction; after that, an entirely different setting occurred to me, and that's when the story really took shape.

Ann Packer received the Great Lakes Book Award for The Dive from Clausen's Pier, which was a national bestseller. She is also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories. She is a past recipient of a James Michener award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and other magazines, as well as in Prize Stories 1992: The O. Henry Awards. She lives in northern California with her family.