Writing is the 6th Impossible Thing.

I’m always interested in how writers write. That’s why I am fascinated by their rough drafts:


This (above) is a David Foster Wallace rough draft. Or, more accurately, it’s his notes for a chapter of one of his books. What interests me is that he’s not a linear list maker. He makes notes like a left-hander, rounding thoughts up in a non-hiearchical fashion, and then later culling those thoughts and hammering them into sentences and paragraphs. (Was David Foster Wallace left-handed? Stay here while I go check….

…I’m back. I couldn’t find any information about D. F. W.’s handedness but I’d be wiling to bet that he was a southpaw.)

Now, what I make of Marcel Proust…


..is that the was a very organized thinker, and fearless about writing crappy first drafts (look at all that writing!) and passionate (all those huge vigorous Xs!) about editing out fluff or preciousness. I see that Proust wrote out all the bad ideas (the lightest and most fleet that come first to mind) and dug deep for the good stuff that lays low, in the back of consciousness.  It takes a lot of courage to not fall in love with your first concepts, to delete all the stuff that would have made your life easier if you had lower standards, pages and pages of it.

Here is Honore Balzac, correcting proofs:

7 Balzac manuscripts

Back then, words must have looked so very, very different when seeing them in print for the first time, is how I account for these copious “corrections”. These days, the good old word processor gives you a sense of what cold, hard print looks like. Did I mention that I’ve been writing for days, weeks really, on end, trying to wrassle my Damn Garden Book into being? Writing makes me very tense. Very. Tense. But I’m on a word processor, so I get the shock of seeing my words in cold, hard print a.s.a.p. Yay for the modern age.

To soothe my nerves, I did paint an extra New Orleans picture…


Truth is, so much less can go wrong with a painting than with a paragraph.

…but we’ll get back to that later. This is Don Delillo, whose books I do not read:


And this is Chuck Palahniuk, also whose books I do not read:


No judgment there against Don and Chuck, who are both literary and marketplace superstars, it’s just that reading fiction is a colossal waste of time. But I like following Chuck’s train of thought there, the one that ends with  “BOY IN COMA”. Fun.

I am an amateur graphologist, and the give away here (below) is the so-called “lyrical D“. That’s when the lower case “D” found at the end of a word resembles a musical note — see it?  I count eleven such lyrical D‘s here, in the words “and”, “world”, “wind”, “thread”, “round”:


The “lyrical D” denotes a sensitive nature, a person whose general  wiftiness is because of artistic temperament, not stupidity. Not that these things aren’t mutually exclusive. The writer of all these lyrical D’s is…

…Walt Whitman.

So, as free-associative as his poems appear, they are actually meticulously composed, going by this rough draft.

Graphologically speaking, this next writer is very intellectual (vertical letter formation, straight downstroke formation to the lower case “Y”, very angular script). The “WAR IS PEACE” stuff gives it away:


This is George Orwell’s rough draft for his novel, 1984. Raise your hand if you remember reading this in high school and thinking Jeeze…1984 is soooooo faaaar awayyyyyyy in the far, far future……Back in high school, I could not imagine a reality in which I would be 28 years old in 1984. But let’s not digress.

Next, we see that even geniuses revise:


Yes, that’s Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. I can imagine that when he wrote the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in capital letters, he did so because the whole notion of a United States of America, the foreignness of those words, the power and danger of them, made his heart pound. He wanted to imagine what they would look like in print, he wanted to make monuments of those words. And yes, there’s that “lyrical D” again.

And then there’s the rough draft that shows the writer’s eternal obstacles and inconveniences, as seen here in a 14th century hand-lettered manuscript painstakingly inked by some anonymous monk or scribe,  recently discovered in some Ye Olde English archive, a vellum hand-bound book that has been gathering dust for centuries:


Looks like Fluffy did a toe dance in the ink pot again.

It revives my faith in humanity, and not incidentally the written word, to see that literate men from time immemorial have chosen to share their intellectual lives and learned work and cloistered hearts with their pain-in-the-ass pet cats.

I have always said that I am a writer who illustrates. I say that because I wrote stuff long, long before I ever illustrated stuff. I only started to illustrate because I wanted to create a reading experience that depended on a visual element and I was the only illustrator who could stand to work with me. But let me be clear, as a person who does both: Writing is much, much, MUCH harder than illustrating. Paint is ten times easier to deal with than words, is all I’m saying.

Writing makes me very tense.


If I’ve spent a day writing drivel and the obvious, I can’t sleep at night. If I paint a lousy picture, I forgive myself and try again; if I write a putrid sentence, I question my raison d’être.

Anyhoo. I wanted to show you, dear readers, my rough drafts. First, my rough draft is an actual physical object…it’s a three-ring binder notebook:


Each page is held in a plastic sleeve, to protect the art work while I fiddle with the lay-out:


First Chapter, above, Edinburgh — I map out each page, do the illustrations, and paste  in the text:


The yellow Post Its (above, recto side — right hand page) show me how I need to format text when I do my next re-write. But since the illustration is the easy part, and since every writer worth her salt procrastinates the act of writing as long as possible, I do the illustrations first:


This is the title page for the Rio de Janeiro chapter (above), and a two-page spread for the Rio garden for which I have not yet written text (below):


Two page-spread for Key West:P1190087

More Key West with me being ever so clever with the horizon across two pages:


Japanese garden pics, with space for text:


London garden chapter:


And a garden here on Long Island:


You can see that I’ve tried to vary the way I do illustrations, give the reader a “chocolate box” reading experience (you never know what’s going to pop up, not literally, when you turn the page).

But I can not emphasize enough how horrible it is to write a book. I’ve been at it for a year and I am just now getting the hang of it. Last month I was so discouraged that I Googled my mood: miserable gardener. I wanted to see who out there in the universe shared my pain. Try it. Google miserable gardener and see what you get.

Alright, I’ll tell you. Here’s what you get:


The miserable gardener is a pure bred border collie named Chess who gardens and blogs in the desert of Colorado. HE IS AMAZING. In addition to all kinds of expert info about Colorado gardening, Chess also blogs about the bunnies in his backyard:


It’s been very hot in Colorado and this is how a bunny keeps cool.

And get ready for unbearable cuteness…Chess also blogs about     Baby      Bunnies:


AND AND AND, recently Chess had a blog about something I’ve never ever ever seen before…





I could keel over from the cuteness. Do drop by The Miserable Gardener (he’s actually not all that miserable) — or you can click here to catch up. You will be glad you did.

Thank you, dear readers, and deepest gratitude to all you wonderful Commentors, for your understanding and empathy for the loss of our dear Oscar. My mother reads this blog and she always tells me that I have the best Commentors on the interwebs. I agree. Merci.

And, since we haven’t painted together recently, I’m going to end this post with a French Quarter illustration I did last week when the writing was going nowhere. It’s times like that when I’m really glad I have a paint brush handy.


Note the little bit of masking fluid I’ve laid down in the back ground. That little bit is really quite important to the picture. If I don’t get that right, the whole illustration will be useless.


I find that painting a repetitive form, such as the black lines for these shutters and door frames, is very relaxing:



It’s time to peel off the masking fluid and see if I can make this illustration work:








This is a full page illustration — the blank space of the porch (called a gallery in New Orleans) will be filled with text. And yes, I keep a tape measure on my desk to get the dimensions, and I write accordingly. I decided to leave the hanging plant as is, which is very different than what I usually do — as an amateur illustrator I tend to paint a lot of detail; but this time I was struck by the free-ness of this plant so I didn’t go over it as I’d intended, and paint in fronds. I think it still works, as the picture already has enough frou frou with the cast iron, nest-ce pas?

I do not write in the same room in which I paint. How about I give you a tour of my writing room next week? Anybody interested in seeing that?  I will, of course, be accompanied  by my writer’s mandatory  pain-in-the-ass assistant:


Lickety, showing off his ambidexterity.

Have a wonderful weekend, my dear readers, and see you next Friday.

(Note: Comments are open until 11:59 pm Tuesday, July 30.)




34 Comments, RSS

  1. Dear Vivian, I seem to be unable to get my act together sufficiently to leave you a comment here before your comments close. The week gets away from me, somehow. Belatedly, then, I am so sorry about the loss of your beloved Oscar. Words cannot say. I had to look quickly at the shovel photos, then look away, then look quickly again, and look away again, because I thought I might burst into tears. And the Sargent watercolors, well, what a master he was. He said painting in watercolor was “making the best of an emergency” and I love him for it.

    Baby blue jays. I mean, we know there are such creatures, but to actually see them, WOW.

    Love the shutters and perspective in your painting. And all the rough drafts, especially that of Whitman (one of my heroes). And YOURS (another one of my heroes).

  2. Patricia

    I loved seeing the writer’s process. How wonderfully diverse their paths are to a smooth polished seemingly effortless page. Much like you and triscuits. We see the charming effect of all your tiny brush strokes but when we see all the steps from blank page to finished painting, it’s even more amazing.

    PS. my favorite were the damn cat prints in the 14th century manuscript …

  3. Christine

    Love the “in process!” It’s your “journey.” Just like your actual traveling, the getting there is as big as the destination. Thank you for sharing that!
    I also loved the baby blue jays (never saw one before) and the baby bunny and the kitty. I was so sad about Oscar last week that I could only read the blog once, instead of re-visiting it many times. Bless his fuzzy heart and bless you for honoring him.

  4. Caroline

    Your blog is a chocolate box — I never know what you’ll be up to and that’s why I can’t wait for Friday.

    How interesting it is to read your interpretations of those writers’ processes. i don’t know any writers so this is a delicious peek into that hidden world. And to see the Damn Garden Book in process is extraordinary!

    Those baby blue jays are bird-works-in-progress…now I know that when I find a tiny blue feather, it just might have come from a tiny blue jay. I’m with sarasbooks: Wow!!

  5. Laura

    Thank you for sharing your rough draft binder. You have really connected the book-writing process to the roots of a well-prepared research project or thesis. A 3-ringed binder and page protectors with post-its and cut-and-paste text boxes…all of which I, a lowly reader, have in my desk, but not the “Swiftism” to conjur up your magic. I enthusiastically accept your invitation to tour your writing space.
    Does sharing your process help keep you motivated to push to the finish? Does it help you celebrate the benchmarks along the way?

  6. Carol

    Yes!!! I want to see the writing room, complete with administrative staff. Do you think if you contacted Chess he would send you any stray baby blue jay feathers for your collection? I bet he would!! You and Top Cat and the Gang have a great week!

  7. Yes ! Show us the magic room where all this takes place. Including Coco who lives there. I think I remember that from a l o n g time ago in one of your blogs.

  8. janet bellusci

    what a treat to get a sneak peak at the next damned book! it is beautiful, and i’m looking forward to adding it to my ‘collection of books vivian’!

    also, thank you for recommending THE MISERABLE GARDENER.~ i have the same bunnies in my yard, but am never quick enough to get the camera out to get a great shot.

    re: FROU FROU: for me, this painting has the perfect balance of detail and impression (“freeness”).

    add me to the list of folks who would enjoy seeing your writing room…especially if it includes assistants like LICKETY!

  9. I admire your industriousness and organization. Your garden book will be stunning indeed.
    Yes, writing is horribly tiring which is why I do so little of it.
    However it is madly encouraging to see all that work and those endless cross outs in IMPORTANT writers’ note books.

    Buster likes the sound of the blog with baby bunnies.

    lots of love
    e and b

  10. It’s fascinating to see these drafts (about the only drafts I’ve ever seen are in Stephen Sondheim’s books — and music drafts are a little different!)

    Mostly, I love the not only the painting lesson (yes, important masking!) but really love seeing how you put your books together. I have a post on “Le Road Trip” on my blog as part of the Paris in July gig, and I think I’m going to dash in and add this link — it will add to the richness. (You are getting lovely comments!)

  11. Thank you so very much for sharing your creative process with us. I have to tell you….I purchased your other book and could not put it down. I read it all at once and I so thoroughly enjoyed it.


  12. Hi Vivian…..thank you so much for sharing this information with us. It is fascinating how ideas occur to you and how you are able to put them down in your art. I purchased your other book and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.


  13. oh i so love all you share, you take me out of the confines of my world and thrust me into your multifaceted interests and passions. the that fact that you share your rough drafts thrills me, peeking in on the inner works you expose so freely, like opening a new exquisite watch to see how the pieces all tick and whirl together… but its even better then that, its about gardens, gorgeous worldly places shared thru you very hands which is sure to have very witty repartee laid between the pages.

    miserable gardener, are you for real, you were so undone you tried to find one wretchedly unhappy gardener? so glad all you found was a happy go lucky chatty dog, because we garden for joy, it would be crushing to find a miserable gardener… why didn’t you look for miserable author 😉

    ahh good, you are back to painting, that should cheer you up. it amazes me what a clean canvass can transform into with your minute brush strokes…

    lickety can surely do the splits, how adorable! i just trapped a female feral and her 3 babies last night, i have got my work out for me, its nice to see one happy content cat because i got a room for of stress like your first kitty pic 🙁

    just read the art forger, but then i see you don’t seem to like fiction, i thought it was great, but not if you think its all a colossal waste of time! you still might think about it, all that art stuff was very entertaining 🙂 have a great weekend and thanks for another fabulous installment of you~

    • Vivian

      Jain, as always, you bring up an excellent point. I should have Googled “miserable author”.

      So I did, and found that while nobody has created a blog called The Miserable Author, I did read a great short essay on the subject of writers’ misery — of course it’s wise and graceful because it’s by Elizabeth Gilbert. You can read it here. And from now on I will quit yapping about what a toad I am for not being able to write like an angel on the first draft and just remember that I was much more miserable when I worked in retail, at a front desk at a hotel and at a hedge fund, and writing PR for a scam professional association.

  14. Pippa

    Fun fun fun fun fun. I had such a good time reading this. I wonder that if all those writers could have kept on revising or did they just run out of time?

    I love the miserable gardener. He has very soulful eyes, that Chess, so I know he has the heart of a gardener. Thank you for finding this treasure.

  15. Carol

    I have to agree, I have never had the opportunity of seeing baby bluejays. Why is that? Maybe they are friendlier in his neck of the woods.

    That is the most adorable picture of Lickety!
    I am so sorry for your recent loss. I am looking for a new kitty or two, I am down to one. I have always just kept strays as they show up, but I think I will check out the local shelter this time.
    The one I have thinks his goal in life is to warm laps and give fang rubs! Yes, he has fangs.

  16. Google Beethoven’s sketches to see the ultimate artistic genius (imho) at work. Working and re-working and re-re-working.
    Having waded through endless fictions, including Proust’s million and a half words, my conclusion, except for Raymond Chandler and a few others, is pretty much the same.

  17. My friend is a writer..
    I just bought her Christmas gift today because I could not resist it for her.. she’s actually a writer and an artist..
    I bought her a leather bound journal.. the cover being a sheet of music..
    Her husband was a flutist..and a conductor.
    She taught me so much..
    About kindness.. and being truthful:)
    I used to feed Zak her cat if she would be away..she’s moved now.. to the city and Zak has made many alley friends:)
    She introduced me to Nathalie Goldberg’s CDs about writing..and I must admit I find her interesting~
    Sometimes how much you like the person that introduces you to new things..impacts the outcome..
    So I like her:)
    You have such a stable hand..Don’t know why ..but today is the first time I have noticed that you are left handed~

  18. Megan Hyatt

    Hi Vivian, apologies for being a dope. Just found my comment to your last post, hanging there in space. I was so sorry to hear about the loss of your dear kitty. They are so wonderful I could sit and watch mine all day. They are fascinating and have such strange little ways. I love that he was friends to the shovel. Mine had a broken office chair he loved he’d sit under the lean-to and survey his kingdom, ‘this is all mine’. We sneaked the chair into a skip when we put our house on the market two years ago… not happy about that. I hope you are able to look back with fondness and that you are getting over the grief, it is so sad they have such short lives. We are experiencing a bit of winter on the outskirts of Sydney Australia and my partner and I have organic lap warmers, sadly it prevents a cup of coffee in front of the TV at night if you aren’t really organised to get things ready before you sit. I love the 14th century manuscript, I did a diploma in calligraphy and I have to say the way those pens scratch away is intriguing to a cat… I can just imagine that cat wasn’t getting enough attention. It brought a smile to my face. Your blog posts are always so interesting and I so look forward to them. Surround yourself with happy memories. I love Lickety what a great pose! I hope there is no limit to comment size, apologies. I am off to check out the miserable gardener.

  19. Sherry Kitchen

    ah…so glad to know it’s Friday when I will have a new pen pal to enjoy…you are no amateur illustrator to me. I ”found” you last Sunday..read your Wanderer all afternoon with multiple cups of tea..so glad I bought all the copies they had..”3” cuz when I went back for more they were gone. I sent you a question about your tools which I have answered myself by obsessively reading your archives every nite. The tutorials are the best! What a treasure I’ve found.Thank u thank u thank u ..bowing Chinese style in my mind..very honored to meet you! So thankful for your glimpses into your art process and thoughts. Yes writing is hard..I did a small gardening magazine for a few years.Sometimes it just flows and other times, well….whatever you want to say can’t find the words,then, it’s so wonderful to find a brush,a cuppa tea, a window or a garden to wander into. So sorry that your Oscar was called away..his shovel will always hold his spirit and so will your heart.Kitties are so special. Oh,, thanks for introducing me to David Hockney. The website//mail request confused me..email or snail mail address.. what website..mine? don’t have one.. found you on https://vivianswiftblog.com..;-)

  20. Megan Hyatt

    Sorry forgot to say how much I love the nine small portraits of your cats at the bottom of your last post. Such talent I am envious! My partner says by the foot prints that 14th Century cat was off at full pelt after a mouse or rat, earning his keep.

    • Vivian

      Wait. Cats can EARN THEIR KEEP?!?!? I have to go tell all my kitties that from now on, I expect them to be of some social, economic, or cultural benefit! But first I’ll have to wake them up…

  21. Joan

    Oh my! This was a most interesting post. First of all, looking into the journals/writing drafts of these authors…great to see how they process their ideas…diamonds in the rough, hopefully.

    I can’t imagine being a writer…to me it would be equivalent to going to the dentist daily for a root canal without anesthesia. I had to write a short story about a real event in my life. I thought I’d die before it was finished. Much as I love books and reading, that ended any thought of being a writer.

    Your admin. assist. is very handsome and very agile. I’m sure he/she gives purrs and lap time when you’re coming unwound.

    Loved the NO gallery painting…very nice.

    Yes, I’d love to nose through your writing room. The sneak preview of the Damn Garden Book was enticing. I’m hoping the rest of the writing gets easier. What is the deadline?

    • Vivian

      No deadline for the Damn Garden Book yet. I’ve illustrated seven chapters (seven gardens) but I’ve only re-re-re-re-re-re-written three and I just this week (on Wednesday) sent those sample chapters to my agent for submission to the publisher. I await the publisher’s acceptance of said manuscript, and will negotiate for the best pub date poss (I think a garden book should come out in the Spring — what do you think?) and when we arrive at a mutually agreeable deadline I will let my dear readers be the first to know.

  22. Jeannie

    Every time I stumble across hand written words, I am going to be looking for the “lyrical d”. 🙂 I wonder if there are authors who don’t edit themselves. I know there are politicians who should, but don’t. I can’t imagine writting and not crossing out and adding. Heck, you should see my grocery and errand lists! Off to visit the miserable gardener! Baby bunnies and blue jays!

  23. CarolH-NY

    Okay, I’ll bite….What are the other FIVE impossible things, if Writing is the sixth 🙂

    Thanks for filling our Fridays with new eye candy, ideas, travel, and “Vivian Vivre.” Does anyone else check very late Thursday night to see if your column has been posted? 🙂

    Now to investigate the “miserable gardener ” … after feeding my cat, of course.

    • Vivian

      Thank you for asking about this 6th impossible thing…I got it from a poorly remembered bit from Alice Through the Looking Glass, when the White Queen tells Alice that she can believe five impossible things before breakfast — my ever-so witty headline was trying to make Writing a Book the sixth impossible thing….

      It turns out (I looked it up) that the White Queen tells Alice that she can believe SIX impossible things before breakfast so Writing a Book should have been the 7th impossible thing but as the great Lewis Carol/Professor Dodgson realized, “Six” in the context of “impossible things” is more euphonious than “Seven”, so I’ll stick with my whiny conceit that Writing a Book is the 6th Impossible Thing.

  24. This is packed full of fun goodies to read. I didn’t know writers kept their rough drafts for all to see. Fun to see too. Love seeing how you are putting your book together. Its looking great. And yes I want to see where you write. And last but not least its fun seeing how you paint something. Have a wonderful week.

  25. I am a writer and artist and have the opposite experience in the creative process. The writing is never easy, but I know when I start I will get it right after a few drafts.

    But the art, oh, the art. Your illustrations are amazing and gorgeous and I have no idea how you paint those triscuits! You are so generous in showing your progression with the photos and how you sometimes redo over and over. The thing is, I could redo over and over and end up with an illustration that gets worse and worse!

    So I do understand how frustrated you can be, I just experience it on the painting and not the text.

  26. Carly

    You are an inspiration. Thank you for the sneak-peek at the Damn Garden Book in-progress, and for the Miserable Gardener. Wow! Baby blue jays!

    I love reading this blog every week but I also love reading the Comments. I know that when I come here I will be educated and entertained and challenged and enlightened by both the bog and the wonderful people who share stories here. Thank you, sarasbooks, Particia, Christine, Laura, Carol, Mary, Janet, Elizabeth, Jeanie, Josette, Jain, Pippa, Carol, Bob, Monique, Sherry, Joan, Jeannie, and Loretta.

    And what Carol H. said: what is the 6th impossible thing?

  27. Deborah

    Yes, please! to the tour of the writing studio.

    Loved the handwriting tour. I recently saw an article about the funny comments the monks would write in the margins of things they were copying.

    My own writing style is a cross between Wallace and Chuck — not linear, and I’m right-handed (although when I was young, I really, REALLY wanted to be left-handed.) When I taught composition, I had to teach ‘the outline’ & I always felt like such a hypocrite because I never, ever wrote that way. When we had to do outlines in high school, I would write the paper, then create an outline from the finished paper.

    Loved the Miserable Gardener. I’ve never seen baby bluejays before, either. Even though I’ve been enjoying the Steller’s jays here in Seattle (I’ve been feeding them on the deck railing), I’m ready to get back home to my garden and ‘MY’ birds. And my pups & my Crusty Irishman (husband).

    It’s been nice to have the continuity of your blog while I’m away.

  28. Deborah

    And I garden pretty much the same way I write. Yeah, I think you could do the same with gardening styles. (and thanks for the pre-view of the damn gardening book). Seeing my writing in this small comments space is different than seeing it full screen.

  29. Maggie McLaren

    Yes please I’d love to see the writing room and while this new book might be causing you pain, I know it will be a joy for all your fans I loved the sneak preview am so looking forward to it, if Le Road Trip is anything to go by. I loved it and have given copies to 2 of my friends and they loved it too. Your paintings are such a pleasure to look at with all their intricate detail beautifully executed. I only recently stumbled on your blog and am a fan now,eagerly awaiting each new one. I’m writing from Sydney Australia by the way.

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