Friday, 6 April 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - Forward Ever (Backward Later)

Redrum
Let's talk about moving forward.

In his excellent (and well-edited) book On Writing, Stephen King suggests writing through your first draft without giving in to the temptation to edit as you go.  I wholeheartedly concur. Writing through the first draft without tweaking almost insures there will be a first draft. Editing as you go almost insures there won't be.  Re-read the draft when you sit down to work, and keep writing from the end.  With a poem this is easy.  With a story, screenplay, novel - not so much.

Incessantly tweaking the first act of a screenplay, the opening of a novel, or the beginning of a book may feel like the right thing to do - you want your set up to be impeccable - but it's a great way to get bogged down.  This is an easy way to lose momentum, to lose the forest for the seedlings, and to get bored of the work.  By the time you feel the beginning is done, you may also feel there is no end in sight.

I know a writer who spent over a decade on a first novel.  Draft after draft, re-combing, recombining, tweaking, but never giving it its legs.  All that work still named a first draft.  Given out to readers every 2 or 3 years for feedback, and then back into the cave for 2 or 3 years to fix the first draft, which was nowhere near anything the writer wanted to submit for publication.  

Moving forward involves letting go.  There is a point at which you must let go.  When you leave the planet (and you will, we all do), do you want to leave one book, or a whole shelf of books? 

Think about how many shelves Stephen King's books take up in a library.  He is possibly the most prolific writer in history - I gratefully receive the advice he has shared.   He's never limited himself in form or genre, he simply takes different names when he feels like it to keep some distance.  Maybe you don't like Stephen King books and don't want to take his advice.  Whatever his slant on the universe, can you deny his grasp of human motivations, character, his understanding of sense of place, morality, his power for telling a story with gripping suspense, or his ability to plot narrative arcs so carefully intertwined with his characters' journeys that they seem inseparable?

I'm a huge Raymond Chandler fan, but I've run out of Chandler to read.  I hate that!  If I were a rabid Stephen King fan, instead of a just a respectful one, I'd probably never run out of his books to read!  (Unnecessary aside:  I have this weird habit of saving back one book from living authors I love, so that if they stop writing, I still have one shiny new spine to crack - for instance, I've never read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison - it's my saved book of hers.)  Things take the time they take to craft, of course, and it isn't a race.  But there is a point at which you must exit the Interstate or you will end up in the Atlantic or the Pacific.

If you're working on a first draft longer than it's socially acceptable to breastfeed a baby, I'm calling you out. (I'm going to caveat that with exceptions for PhD. theses, working moms trying to write in their one lucid hour a day, textbook writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and other extreme cases that involve incredibly time consuming drafts - you know who you are and you are on your own recognizance.)

Let go - you don't need to put it all in the first book. You have more books in you, more screenplays, more poems, more essays, you do.  If you continue in first draft limbo, you won't.  This is a trick you are playing on yourself - telling yourself you are writing, you are a writer, yet neurotically obsessing over your insecurities as manifest by your manuscript.  Yes, I said that.  The monster in a box is back.

I'm admonishing you, because if this is your issue, then you are stuck in something gooey and pernicious, and much worse than the thing that people call Writers Block.  (Insert that Law & Order sound effect here, please...in fact, every time I write Writers Block, you can hear that.)

There is help for this - there are editors, coaches (yes, like me), classes, workshops, there are reading services, there are ways to get creative feedback to get out of the feedback loop in your head.  If you don't avail yourself of the assistance surrounding you, then you are babysitting some part of yourself you are afraid to show to the world, possibly to your own spiritual and psychological detriment.

Journal writing is not for show; it's yours, it's precious, it's private.  When you choose other forms of writing - presentational forms - as your calling, but then withhold presentation in perpetuity, something is wrong.  Remember - you don't have to show it to anybody.  Write it, and if it's too personal, fleshy, raw, terrible, terrifying - put it in a drawer or the electronic equivalent and move on.  However, dancing with this thing you know you don't want to show anyone in some kind of perpetual stalemate is not healthy.

Ask yourself:

Do I enjoy the process of writing?

Do I enjoy the process of writing this particular thing?

Do I get joy from the product of the time I spend writing?

Why isn't it finished?

When will I consider it to be finished?

Is this what I want to write?

Will this ever be something I want to present to the world?

What am I waiting for?

Perfection is the constant stalker of the artist.  If the spectre of this mercenary is hanging over your head while you write - well, that would make it impossible to write anything.  For a minute, turn on the television.  Flip through the channels.  Watch what's on there.  Somebody wrote that.  Somebody is getting large checks for that, buying a house with that, paying for their kids' college.  Perfection?  Occasionally.  Professional-grade?  Yes.  So, what are you waiting for?

Yoda
Don't try.
Let go of the idea of perfection, of an absolute finished (citation:  George Lucas).  Take it off the table.  You are not going to make Citizen Kane your first time out.  That was a fluke of humanity.  Seriously.  So was Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird,  Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, and Adele's 19.  I mean, seriously - who makes masterpieces their first time out of the gate?  Not very many people.  

Perfection is not the point.  Communication is the point.  Becoming part of the cultural dialogue is the point.  Sharing your vision is the point.  

If the thing you are working on won't call itself finished, is driving you to distraction, is driving you to drink, is making you nauseous, put it away.  Start something new, taking the lessons with you, but acknowledging the ways in which the idea didn't work, or spun out of your creative control, or was not large enough to sustain its form, or was too large for its form, or was beyond the grasp of your skills at that point.  It's totally okay.  You don't have to burn it or anything.  Or burn it, but keep it on a hard drive somewhere.  You can go back to it.  You can steal from it.  You can move on and write the thing that truly wants to be written by you and shared with the world.  Write that.


(And that's a double dose of perfection - Adele singing Dylan.  Enjoy it - don't try for it.)
(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)

2 comments:

Fiona said...

I definitely agree with you and Stephen King! A friend and I had a similar dilemma - she liked to edit as she wrote and I preferred to write a full draft. It's taken her years to finish her first novel, and it still needs a lot of editing! I've been able to write a lot more, and by having the experience of editing time and time again on full drafts I feel like my writing itself has benefited from it. So it just goes to show, you have to actually sit down and write - even if you don't feel like it's going anywhere - before you really improve. Great post!

E. Amato said...

Thanks for posting! I was very guilty of this for a long time, not realizing how destructive it was to the process. And yes - sitting down is the key to it all!