Rough times with rough drafts
On writing and rules
Late last year, bored and in isolation, I tweeted out a call for advice:
I expected a few dozen people to respond, but I guess everyone else on Twitter was bored too. Over six hundred people replied directly, and almost sixteen hundred retweeted it with their own thoughts. To this date the tweet has had three million impressions. That’s cat meme territory. As I have been typing the last paragraph, a few more people have retweeted it.
I read every response that I could with interest. First of all, it was a nice reminder just to see how many people write, how many people struggle with writing, how tightly we hold on to the little tips and tricks that have worked for us, how keen we are to share them with others. People always say that writing is a solitary activity, and when I’m comparing myself to more accomplished colleagues, I do feel pretty lonely, as though I were the only person alive who hadn’t managed to reach goal Y or publish in journal X. (I know how ridiculous this is. But it’s a feeling one has.)
But in general I’ve found that writers are eager for community, ready to suffer and celebrate together. One of the gifts of the past few, otherwise difficult years has been learning that not living in New York or London (or Toronto or Berlin) didn’t mean I had to be without regular, sustaining connection to other writers — and by this I mean academic writers, journalists, and creative writers of all stripes.
And one thing that writers are evidently very ready to do is share advice on writing.
Listen, it’s worth looking at that tweet, both at the comments and its retweets. It could be a neat little florilegium of creative tips, you know the kind that you find in the gift shop of an art gallery. I’ve bookmarked it for myself so I can return to it and remind myself of what has worked for other writers. But what sticks with me is one thing I noticed that came up over and over again, maybe the most frequent suggestion, in fact, and that was:
Get it all down. No matter how messy or bad. Just get down a draft. Revising is easier than writing.
This is Good Advice. This is advice you hear a lot. It’s famous too: Anne Lamott wrote about the importance of “shitty first drafts” in Bird by Bird. You should probably follow this advice. The problem?
I hate shitty first drafts.
I can’t make truly bad first drafts into passable second (or fifth) drafts.
I can do lots of things. I can edit a reasonably decent piece of prose into something tighter, more focused. I can take out the repetitions. I can move paragraphs around, try a totally different organization, you name it. It’s not an unwillingness to revise that I suffer from. What I can’t do is take an aimless, rambling mess and transform it, with any amount of editing, into something that has a point and is true to my voice.
At that point, all I can do is launch a new file and start over.
What good writing feels like to me is: a tentative start (either with an outline written out, or with one in my head, depending on length of piece); a feeling of warming up, of my voice coming on, which I can tell because the sentences begin to present themselves, ready to be written down; a growing energy as I see that this strange alchemy still works, that I have not, in fact, completely forgotten how to write; and then a mad, heady thrill as I approach the finishing line.
That’s a best case scenario, but even to have a workable draft I need to feel, at some level, that there’s an energy in the piece that can carry me through.
Really bad drafts don’t have that. They just lie there, limp, on the page, completely unwilling to help me compose. And they certainly don’t go anywhere.
So every time I saw this Really Good Advice, the one about making friends with terrible drafts, the one that seems to work for lots of other writers, in my timeline — and that was more than a few hundred times — I winced. I winced, too, when I saw the other Universally Acknowledged Good Writing Advice, to write every day. I can glue my butt to a chair and try to write every day, I can. I have that discipline. But a lot of the time what will come out is a shitty first draft. And we know how I feel about that.
What helped me through this quandary was a wonderful thread prompted by my tweet:
It’s worth reading the whole thing, but the key to me has to do with doing a lot of thinking “on paper” as an early part of the writing process, but then abandoning that work and starting a completely new draft once you actually know what to say.
If I’m being honest, this could be interpreted as just a version of the “shitty first draft” advice. (Oh how I hate even typing that out over and over again.) The difference to me is that if I don’t call early, brain-dump type work a “draft,” I also don’t feel the need to try and rework it into something good. That kind of writing is, to my mind, thinking, which I could just as well do by taking a walk, talking to a friend about my ideas, or musing to myself under the shower.
When I read Aaron’s thread I realised I already do a lot of writing of that kind. For scholarship and book reviews I spend a lot of time typing out quotes from books and then writing around them. It’s a slow process — sometimes too slow for my liking — but it allows my subconscious to work out a structure, and by the time I’m done I usually quite close to knowing what I want to say and in what order. If I don’t, I probably need to reread the book, or read a few other things. Then I organise my material, and maybe write around that too — headings, possible conclusions, side notes. And only then do I begin the first draft.
If I’ve spent enough time allowing a piece to simmer in this manner, then I can draft it quite quickly and in close-to-final form. At that point, I know where I want to get, and I know what quality of voice will carry me there. The writing of the draft will still reveal new things, take me off course, perhaps change my focus — it’s a dynamic process — but at least I have a map and a vehicle.
As I write this I see that I keep turning to metaphors involving motion and the feeling of being carried to describe writing when it feels best. To some extent, I don’t want to feel like I’m the one doing the work. In the very, very best moments that sensation goes by the name of “inspiration.” But if I’m honest about it, most of the essays I’ve written in that narcotic state were made up of stories I had told to myself, or to others, for years. I had pre-drafted those too, just not in Word or Scrivener.
This is also the solution to the “writing every day” quandary. I’ve tended to interpret “writing every day” to mean, “write a useable piece of prose every day.” The issue was that if I didn’t really know what I wanted to say, the prose I produced was worse than useless — worse, because it also made me depressed and want to give up.
Once upon a time, my coach and friend Anne Bramley pointed out that I could count anything related to my project as part of my writing. If I was reading, taking notes, or thinking about the piece, I was writing. I found this idea a revelation and a liberation. With time, I’ve come to see that I need a slightly tighter definition, one that involves putting some words down or at least underlining passages on a close-to-daily basis. The key is that I can be writing in a dedicated fashion, without producing a draft before I’m ready.
What strikes me is that learning how to cultivate a sustaining writing practice is not so much about following rules or breaking them, but about redefining them to suit your own purposes. Some people need structures with more freedom, some people do well with word count goals and set hours. Some people do their best revision with a block of text in front of them, while others prefer to revise mentally, in the gap between drafts. All of it requires experimenting, shifting and adapting my process to suit the project, my energy level, and my other commitments.
Thank you for reading this far. If you like, tell me: what is your best writing advice?
A Few Updates
For this week’s Times Literary Supplement, I reviewed Julie Sedivy’s Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self. I have been warmly recommending this book to fellow multilingual people, as it addresses so many of the questions I’ve had about living with multiple languages, whether it’s possible to recover a lost language, what the effects are of growing up with multiple languages on children, and so on. I was also on the TLS podcast this week to talk about the book, and about who we are in our different languages. This is one of my favourite topics, and Sedivy’s work has just made me realise I want to write about it much more.
I also have a piece out in Romanian (translated by Ioana Pelehatăi) in the latest issue of Scena9. The theme of the issue is “Survival,” and my own piece is called “Modul de supraviețuire” (“Survival Mode”). If you read Romanian you can find out more about getting the issue here.