Friday, September 19, 2014
Learning to love the second (third, fourth, and fifth) draft
And so I went, and listened to a thoughtful presentation about the importance of drafts. No news there. But a few faculty members objected. "That essay better be right the first time," one said. Others agreed. I listened to the argument for a few minutes and then jumped in, unable to help myself. Writing IS drafting. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft, except perhaps in an alternate universe, where polished prose flows effortlessly from the fingertips to the page. I would like to live in that universe, but while I'm waiting to be whisked away there by some form of literary magic, I'm teaching - and practicing - the necessity of multiple drafts.
Anne Lamott comes right out and calls it the "shitty first draft" phenomenon. Writing is a layered process, akin to making music. First, the melody - or maybe the rhythm, or the beats. Next, lyrics, then the voice, then harmonies and instrumentation. It depends on what I am writing, but my first drafts of personal essays are messy, words streaming directly from the creative unconscious. The narrative follows a symbolic or visual logic like the logic of dreams. It is not linear. It is not "crafted." The craft comes later, draft after draft. That's when I translate the language of feeling, memory, impression, sensation, and intuition into the language of structure and sense. It takes time. Trying for a "perfect" first draft almost always leads to stiff, constrained writing, lacking depth and imagination. Even in academic writing or narrative journalism, the same is true. Thinking is better, arguments are more nuanced, insights are greater with each draft.
I've learned to enjoy this act of translation. Maybe (back to the music analogy) it's a little like a musician in the recording studio, headphones on, sound engineers at the ready. The raw material filled out and arranged, deepened and expanded, note by note, until the song is a complete artistic creation. In my writing studio, I arrange the words. Stop and listen. Arrange again, rewrite, polish. Listen again. What might seem tedious has, over the years, become a deeply pleasurable act.
My students are learning to trust this process. If there is anything I can give them, that would be it: don't let your inner "editor" write your first draft. Let the artist speak first, and then invite the editor in. Both are necessary, and both will will serve your writing. And both, over time, can be richly rewarding - if you give each the time.