Scaffolding

Sunday Letter | #244

Ah the week after deadline. First: the relief of being done, the joy of diving back into reading for pleasure, of seeing pile up the stack of to-return library books. Then: the slippage, the loss of routine and structure, and the recognition – always after-the-fact, always too late – of things you should’ve done in the last draft and will need to do in the next.

A source of comfort today is Seamus Heaney’s “Scaffolding”, from his collection, Death of a Naturalist, which D.B. brought me years ago as a gift from his trip to Ireland:

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

It’s a bridal poem, as Heaney himself describes . But it could very well be speaking of an author’s relationship to a story, or at least this author’s relationship, at this stage of writing. Our secure planks and tightened bolts are our sentences; we try to write them well, even knowing they’ll have to come down eventually, because writing them well gives us sure footing to build what we’re trying to build.

Last Friday, a high-school student asked me how I knew when a novel was finished. Had I been thinking more about Seamus, and about scaffolding, I might have said something like this: We know when all the scaffolding has fallen away, and what’s underneath can stand on its own, sure and solid, revealed to the world.