Okay, so I hate writers who try to write dramatically about the process of writing. Whole books and plays about trying to create the great American novel or play – usually pretty boring. Generally you don’t see anything of this opus, you just watch the writer whine to their loved ones about how hard it is. It’s self-aggrandizing, masturbatory drivel.
The only person who can make this dynamic is Charlie Kaufman. And the only reason he did was because, with tongue in cheek, he added lots of ironically silly drama in his process of adapting a very undynamic book (which I am currently reading, and wow. Challenge.)
Sometimes writers discuss their processes, rituals, routines, self-imposed rules in a straightforward, undramatic way. I don’t know if this writing appeals to anyone beyond writers. Murakami wrote What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s about writing novels and running marathons. I thoroughly enjoyed it, because I write and I was training for a marathon when I read it. I don’t see how it would appeal to anyone not specifically immersed in those two activities.
If you’ll allow me a moment of self-reflection, I’d like to wallow in my process.
One of those golden rules of writing is to put whatever you’re working on away, get some distance from it, then look at it again with fresh eyes and eye-deas (see what I did there?)
Who has the time for that?
Clearly, the key personality trait for a good and successful writer is patience.
Which, just as clearly, I lack.
Generally I take minimal time between drafts. A few days, a few months. I like to crank out a complete text quickly and then finesse and refine – uh, speedily, usually because I’m pushing up against a deadline. Deadlines are my main inspiration. Which is a whole other can of worms.
My thesis production in grad school was written over four months after I tossed out my original idea due to lack of inspiration. Eight drafts in four months. That’s fast, trust me. I thought it turned out pretty well.
Later I found out I was wrong.
I have a very good sense of what needs fixing, but I can’t even look at it. I actually JUST saw a play that greatly illuminated just exactly what I got oh so very wrong. Four years and lots of perspective later…
In 2008 I took a travel writing class. I wrote a feature article about surfing in New Zealand. My first draft was just over 2,000 words. It received decent feedback in class; the main note was that it was repetitive.
Well, everything is long and repetitive in the first draft. There’s so many pretty ways to say the same thing and I’m indecisive. I can handle that note. My instructor recommended I cut the piece to 800-1,200 words.
I tried to cut it a few months later and only lost 200 words.
I’m a word addict. I need those words, man. They make me feel soooo goooood.
A year after the original draft, I wanted to submit it to an online travel writing magazine. I like to think I can be ruthless with my work (I cut a 120 page play to 84, and it could still be shorter.) I got the thing down to just shy of 1,500 words and thought I had “done good” by demolishing a quarter of it. I couldn’t possibly cut anymore. It would have gaping holes if it were shorter.
I submitted it to the online journal which was running a contest with small cash prizes. I eventually discovered they had just posted whatever had been submitted, no prizes, no permission.
I was annoyed. I felt used, and vain. Like Groucho Marx, I didn’t know if I wanted to belong to any old club that would have me. If they were publishing just anything, well – wasn’t my work better that?
Then I forgot it.
In my renewed vigor to get published, I remembered this story and my pseudo-ire at its pseudo-publication. But with new humility and a need to have some credit on my resume to make me more publishable, this was my only reference.
I looked it up, and there it still is.
I re-read it. I cringed.
It is most definitely too long. It is embarrassingly too long. Why didn’t I cut more? Where are my self-proclaimed editing skills? Two years later, it’s so obvious what is necessary and what is not.
Let me blow your mind: Process is a process. How freaking irritating. As with emotional pain, the ugliness falls away with time and you can see the truth, the worthwhile part to carry forward and what you should leave behind.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and I’m still referencing it as a “published” piece. You can read it here. It’s not terrible. It just needs a little more shaping.
I guess it’s good that I can see that now. That I don’t still think it’s perfect, that I know how to make it better. Hopefully that means I’ve grown as a writer over the past three years.
But does that mean I need to sit on everything I write for years before I try to do anything with it? Because seriously, I don’t think I can sit on my hands like that. It’s the playwright in me: you gotta get it on its feet to see what works.
How many drafts is enough? How do you know when something is “finished?” I wrote a 500-word story. I cut it to 485. I then added back a different set of 15 words. And then adjusted these 15 words over and over. That was a month ago. If I looked at it now I’m sure I’d see that actually there were 15 OTHER BETTER words.
According to The Orchid Thief, it takes seven years for an orchid seed to first flower.
I could never be an orchid breeder.
Can I be a writer?