TITLE: Writing a Novel in the Agile Way AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 24, 2004 4:26 PM DESC: Hassler's story of writing a novel ----- BODY: This weekend, I re-read Jon Hassler's My Staggerford Journal. Hassler is a novelist of small-town Minnesota life, and My Staggerford Journal is the diary-like story of the writing of his first novel, Staggerford, on a sabbatical from Brainerd Community College. I first read it in the months before my own sabbatical of Fall 2002, in hopes of some energy and inspiration. The results of my sabbatical disappointed me, but this journal did not. I heartily recommend his other novels to readers who like the stories of small-town Midwesterners coming to grips withe the changes of life. One paragraph jumped out at me from Hassler's description of what it was like to give birth to the novel he'd wanted -- needed -- to write for twenty years:
I enjoy working on a second draft better than a first. If I had my choice I would write nothing but second (or later) drafts. But to get to that sometimes pedantic, sometimes exhilirating stage of perfection, polishing, filling in holes, rechanneling streams, etc., one has to struggle through the frightening first draft, create the damn thing through to the end, live it night and day and not know where it's going, or if you do know where it's going, then you don't know if you have the skill or stamina to get it there. It won't get there on its own.
Those feelings sound familiar to this programmer. Hassler's discussions of rewriting brought to mind redesign and refactoring. Of course, Hassler wasn't just refactoring his novel. In the second and third drafts, he made substantive changes to the story being told and to the effect it elicits from his readers. But much of his rewriting sounded like refactoring: changing sentences here and there, even rewriting whole chapters to bring out the real story that the earlier version meant to tell. Hassler certainly writes of the experience as one who was "listening to the code". The pain of writing the first draft sounds like a rather un-agile way to develop a novel: creating a whole without knowing where he or the story are going, living in a constant state of uncertainty and discomfort. I have known that feeling as a programmer, and I try to teach my students how to avoid it -- indeed, that it is okay to avoid it. I wonder what it would be like to write a novel using an "agile" method? Can we create art in quite that way? I'm not an artist, but somehow I think painting may work that way more than writing a novel. Or maybe novelists already move in agile way, with the first draft being reworked in bits and pieces as they go, and later revisions just continuing with the evolution of the work. Maybe what distinguishes Hassler's first draft and his later drafts his more in his mind than in the work? -----