Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pulling Off a First Draft

What is a first draft? I'm not sure it's what writers often think it is. I am sure, on the other hand, that the conventional wisdom about first drafts is often misleading.

The question was once asked, by a poet on one of those online poetry workshop boards: Do any of us present first drafts here? and why? and even how, with the miracle of the machines almost doing the work for us?

It's hard not to feel that this is the sort of question which only writers care about. It's just as hard not to smell an elitism behind many anti-first-draft opinions that, frankly, is not particularly warranted. Some of the questions that follow on this one's heels can get into ridiculous hair-splitting minutiae.

For example: Is it a first draft if it's typed directly into the post-it dialog box on one of those forums? or is it the transcription of an improvised performance? Is it a first draft if you write directly to your computer screen, rather than in longhand in your notebook, journal, or other paper paged location? If you write it out first in your journal in longhand, then type it into the computer, is it still a first draft? How little editing, when you type out a draft, is required for it to be considered a virginal first draft rather than already slightly revised?

When I'm out hiking and camping, or off on a photography road trip, I write stuff down in journals by hand. I've been known to pull over and write a poem on the back of a gas station receipt, it being time for the poem to be written and there being no other paper handy. It's too much effort on the road, usually, to boot up the laptop, and when I'm really out in the wilderness, miles from electrical power, the laptop stays in the truck anyway; notebooks are lighter and more portable. Yet I also compose "at the keyboard" sitting at my writing desk, overlooking the outdoors, at any time of day or night. I often write spontaneously to the laptop screen, if I happen to be there already, and a poem comes forward, ready to be written. Lately, I find myself often writing short poems in short forms when sorting through photographs to edit and finalize the best among them; the poem is a spontaneous response to the image. Writing outdoors "on the hoof" then typing into the computer later can be a revision-process stage, yes. One often "cleans up" the rawness of the notebook, to make it more artful.

I find no appreciable difference in what I write, between handwritten and typed modes, so I dispute that my behavior is predicated by the machine. I don't dispute that for some writers the technology matters a great deal; I know a few writers who write only in longhand, feeling that they more connected to their writing process when doing so; and yet it's irrelevant for me. In terms of the poems that I write in a notebook and those I type into the keyboard, there's no change of style or tone or content. No appreciable differences. I can tell you which ones were originally written where, because I preserve my notebooks and I date my files on my computer; but I doubt anyone else would be able to separate which was which, without my guidance.

But then, I'm very familiar with many kinds of publishing and writing technology, practice calligraphy, do book design and typography, etc. To me, these are all equivalent media in which to transcribe, preserve, and convey the words that come into my conscious mind, regardless of whether I'm writing them, typing them, or drawing them with a calligraphy brush. No appreciable difference. I like certain technologies for certain things (typing is way faster than the brush, so when I am thinking through an essay, I can type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts), but I don't find that the machine affects what I write, especially in poetry. No doubt typing allows me to be more verbose in talking about the process, though.

Then do first draft poems naturally have a more inspired or spontaneous feel rather than a crafted one, which may be an attractive quality?

I think that's possible, but it's not universally the case. I can think of writers whose revisions maintain a feeling of energy and spontaneity, and I can think of poets whose first drafts are quite wooden. Nonetheless, it is an interesting point which gets overlooked in the very common emphasis on craft and revision. In our contemporary literary culture, which often seems to exalt craft over every other aspect of writing, where do we leave space for the muse anymore? do we still write with the muse, but then bury it under multiple revisions?

Some writers have tried to convince us that no good writing can come from first drafts. I think of writers who constantly revise their works, sometimes even after initial publication. Some of these preach that all good writing is rewriting. Certainly that is true—for those writers.

The idea that first drafts are never any good—an idea editors also seem to believe—is an idea I dispute, with demonstrable proof. Sometimes first drafts are quite good. Sometimes a poem is pretty much complete on first writing. Perhaps some lengthy internal working on the poem has already happened, at the back of the mind, down in the part of the mind we're usually unconscious of, before the pen ever touches the paper. There have been times when I feel like a poem has been entirely written on this deep pre-conscious, even pre-verbal level. Then something hits the PRINT button in the back of my mind, and out the poem comes, pretty much complete. I might need to make a minor change or two, just a word or a bit of punctuation. But nothing more.

This happens to me a lot when writing poems, to be honest. Granted, I'm not one of those high-output, poem-a-day, disciplined-writing-time poets; my discipline lies in being ready and waiting for whenever that PRINT button gets pushed. Readiness is all. My discipline is to be ready, at any moment; it is not to force my art by writing a prescribed number of hours per day. If such daily writing practice is helpful to others, by all means, proceed. Just be clear that in making art, one size does not fit all. No single creative process is universally useful to all creative artists.

Maybe there is no such thing as a first draft, anymore, because of the technological changes affecting writing, printing, editing, etc. Yet it would be quite wrong to claim that all first drafts presented to online poetry forums, or for that matter classroom writing groups, are a waste of time, or an insult to the readers, merely because they're first drafts. Since it's demonstrably true that many later drafts are equally as bad as any first draft, that argument doesn't hold an ounce of water. Unless of course it's just sour grapes.

Just to be clear, I am not opposed to revising one's pieces. I just want to be clear that revision is a process that must come later, after the work of writing. I do not edit as I write; I go back later and do that during revision. I find that editing during writing kills the flow, and brings me right out of "writer's mind."

I have nothing against revision. I practice the art of revisions regularly. Yet when a poem comes out more or less already complete, I oppose revision because it's possible to improve an artwork into oblivion. Revision needs to be appropriate. Sometimes you need to leave well enough alone. Ask any experienced film editor about the times they're seen a director cut a great film into a piece of crap; it happens regularly. There's an old saying that it takes two people to create a masterpiece: one to paint the masterpiece, and the other to hit the first over the head when it's done.

For example, after the 1862 edition of his Leaves of Grass, Whitman's many revisions tended to weaken rather than enhance the poems, to take away their power rather than add to it. Although many readers and critics have long taken for granted that Whitman's "deathbed edition" of his poems should be adhered to, following the poet's last instructions, in fact many other readers and critics have come to prefer earlier editions. For myself, in my opinion the best and most powerful edition of Leaves of Grass was the 1860 edition: it is the most daring, the most vigorous, the most original and lively of all Whitman's editions. Whitman's powers were at his peak at that time, and the few poems he wrote after that which deserve to be regarded as equally great, are mostly connected to Whitman's experiences of the Civil War, and his laments for the death of President Lincoln. The "farewell" poems that Whitman wrote in his last decade are mostly rather pedantic.

This essay is not a first draft. It's a rewrite of some thoughts I've had before, scattered in vasrious marginalia here and there, pulled here together more coherently to make a point. And yet I have written essays that are essentially first drafts—any essay or poem of mine that was written at white heat tends to be a first draft that doesn't need much editing or revision later. That PRINT button again, I guess. For example, the Spiral Dance essays tend to be written at white heat, and emerge mostly fully-formed.

Is it revision, or a new draft, if I discover a typographic or punctuation error, and go back to fix it? Does a new draft need to be substantially different than the previous draft, not merely a matter of changing a few words, fixing a few errors? Where do you draw that line?

For myself, I think fixing typos and making small changes that do not substantially change the content, meaning, form, or structure of a piece, doesn't really count as a separate draft. A new draft is a completely thorough writing-through, that makes noticeable and trackable changes to the text. If you reduce or expand the length by several paragraphs, I can accept that as a new draft. But if in transcribing a longhand poem to the computer the only changes you make are punctuation, typos, and small word-choices, I'm not sure one can claim that to be an entirely new draft. Mere copyediting is not genuine rewriting.

So I do think it's possible to pull off a first draft and have it be pretty good, or good, or sometimes better than good. It does happen. All writers who are skeptical of this process need do is accept that it can happen, that it does happen—on occasion—not that it must happen every time.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have a problem with the whole draft mentality. I don't draft, I write. Occasionally I have to put the piece aside and go back to it later. I still don't think of what I've written as a draft, it's simply incomplete. The majority of my poems are written in one sitting. I usually find if I have to put a poem to the side it rarely gets finished because when I return to it I do so with a completely different mindset; mind you that can be a good thing too.

I never did a first draft of any of my novels or stories. I sat down and wrote and once I'd got to the end I went back, read what I'd written and added in what I felt I'd missed the first time. After I'd repeated that a couple of times I was done. After that came the editing and proofreading which are merely another part of the writing process. Only with my current book did I actually scrap what I'd written and begin again and I've never had more trouble with any piece of writing. I still don't think of that first block of writing – I think it was about 16,000 words – as a draft. It was a vastly different piece of writing to the one I'm now struggling with.

I think if I thought what I was doing was drafting rather than writing then I wouldn't do my best.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Although some would label your various times writing-through as various drafts, I like your approach and way of thinking about it much better. It makes much more sense to me to think of it as writing and re-writing than as writing drafts.

I agree there's a mental attitude involved. I agree that calling it a draft can mean that we take it less seriously, perhaps, and don't give it our fullest attention and focus.

For the same reason, I don't always think outlines are helpful. They're designed to organize one's plots, and ideas, and so forth. But I find the best way to write an essay is just to start writing it. Sometimes during revisions some structural changes take place. But I don't need an outline to see the structure. It sort of feels like, I have a choice between outlining and actually writing, and I'd rather do the latter.

11:28 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

I started quite at odds with this perspective, but you've slowly won me over to about the midway point on the continuum, Art.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

John, I certainly feel gratitude towards your open-mindedness. I think the truth probably lies for many people on that midway point.

The bottom line is to recognize the possibility of a first draft occasionally being good enough to be considered a finished piece. There are some writers who can never admit that's ever possible. Ever. So I appreciate the midway point, as I think a lot of writers who occasionally get good first drafts also revise other pieces of writing. I count myself amongst those.

What irks me is when writers are so attached to the process of revision—for some, I have come to believe, revision is itself their creative process—that they deny any possibility of it being absent. Ever.

That one writer doesn't need to revise every time, all the time, or simply just as often, seems to be taken by some to be a personal affront. it's somehow threatening to their worldview.

I used to run headlong into this on the poetry workshop boards. There were some poets who flat out could not accept that a posted first draft could be a first draft, as they could not reconcile that fact with their perception that the poem was already good, and finished. I was occasionally accused of revising a poem before posting it—even in an improv workshop setting.

And then there were the tinkerers. I don't mind tinketers, actually: the people who make lots of little changes, here and there, to see if the poem gets better. The best tinkerer, however, is the one willing to admit that not all changes are improvements, and that going back to an earlier version can be better for the poem. Honest tinkerers are willing to undo their tinkerings. Others are more attached to the tinkering process, and feel threatened by undos—as though admitting that one can be wrong were the more dangerous sin.

I can list examples of first drafts becoming finished pieces, and let the reader decide for themselves. That doesn't bother me at all.

What I was objecting to is the absolutist doctrinaire position that first drafts can NEVER be finished pieces, and must ALWAYS go through revision. The problem is with absolutist doctrinaire positions, which are usually wrong the instant they ossify into fixed opinions.

2:36 PM  

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