The Benefits of Writing in Layers

Prep your scenes like a painter for added depth

Aimee Liu

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Photo by Gustavo Leighton on Unsplash

Last month I led a writing retreat with four writers, two working on fiction and two on memoir, in France. We spent a week together in the Haute Savoie, with Mont Blanc in the distance, and yes, it was heaven, yet somehow each morning we managed to focus intently on the work in front of us, and I was able to exercise my teaching muscles in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic. One of my favorite MFA classes when I was teaching at Goddard College was a workshop called “Writing in Layers.” I decided to try it in France. The group was so pleased with the result that I thought I’d share it here.

“One of the great resources of the poetic imagination is its capacity to mount thought on thought, event on event, image on image, time on time, a process that I term ‘layering.’ The life of the mind is largely a buried life.”

The idea for this approach to composition came from a trusted friend who read an early draft of my novel Glorious Boy and informed me that one of my main characters was not yet fully realized on the page. My friend, the multi-talented playwright/poet Darrah Cloud, said she couldn’t tell what this character was thinking or feeling in scenes where he wasn’t the POV character. Knowing she was right, I started to despair. I’d already been working on this book for years.

But then Darrah served up this saving insight. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Just keep revising. Remember, we write in layers.”

The more I thought about this idea of layering composition, the truer it seemed.

Stanley Kunitz, in an essay called “The Layers” in Next-to-Last Things, writes: “One of the great resources of the poetic imagination is its capacity to mount thought on thought, event on event, image on image, time on time, a process that I term ‘layering.’ The life of the mind is largely a buried life.”

Just so, literature is naturally composed through this same process of layering, to reflect the density of our buried life. Scenes, stories, and characters with depth and authenticity…

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Aimee Liu

Author, Asian-American novels (Glorious Boy), nonfiction on eating disorders (Gaining), writing, wellness. Published @Hachette. MFA & more@ aimeeliu.net