Friday, June 17, 2011

wherever you go, there you are

I'm always flattered and humbled when someone sends me an email to tell me that I've inspired them to pick up writing. More often than not, many are writers who gave up on writing at some point in their lives because they or someone else told them they were no good, or that it wouldn't pay the bills, and so on.

I can't tell you how many of these aspiring writers are hung up on perfection. This is an observation, not a judgment. Just yesterday I posted on Twitter about the 2100 "teeth" I pulled. It was rough, man. And the whole time I was writing, a little voice in the back of my mind kept taunting me about how crappy the writing was, how it would never amount to anything, etc. I know the perfection hangup. I've occasionally got that monkey on my back.

Nothing is more debilitating than the fear that what you are writing is no good. The best of us have had this fear. Even a certain recent Oscar-winning screenwriter has had this fear. And nothing is more debilitating to the process than obsessing and worrying about perfection during the drafting stage.

There isn't a right or wrong way to write a first draft. Some, like me, bang out a first draft by seemingly spilling it all on the page without pausing for too long to consider the right word, phrase, description, etc. We don't get hung up on timelines or loose ends, not at this stage. We simply get it out of our heads. Once in awhile I re-read the last chapter or few pages I wrote before starting a new one, just to get a sense of place. Sometimes I even go back and re-read when I'm finished.

When drafting, I write until I run out of steam or hit a wall (couldn't decide which metaphor I liked better; both are applicable). I don't think I've ever stopped in mid-sentence or even mid-paragraph (although I'm probably forgetting), but I've certainly stopped mid-chapter, and I'm ok with that. I'd even be ok with stopping mid-sentence. I'm sure others have.

Many writers prefer to edit as they go along. They write a few pages, stop, then re-read what they've just written, making adjustments along the way. They write a few more, stop, re-read, re-write, and so on. Perhaps they don't want those loose ends or gaps in timeline. Perhaps it helps them organize their thoughts, develop their plots, better hear their characters. Perhaps it means less work later on. Perhaps they just like the idea of a tight manuscript.

There is no right or wrong way to write a first draft. There is no right or wrong way to revise, either.

But it's rare to find a first draft that is without flaws, even with the rewrite-as-you-go method. First drafts are going to be flawed. They're going to be messy, going to lack direction or depth. First drafts are going to have poorly constructed sentences, incomplete thoughts, under-developed ideas. First drafts are going to have characters who aren't sure what they're doing or why, or where they're going or why. They're going to have words that are cliche, descriptions that are confusing, dialogue that is forced. They're going to be either too long or too short. Too many words, or not enough. Too much info dump, or not enough context.

First drafts are not final drafts.

At some point, you've got to quiet the voice that is taunting you, telling you it's no good. You've got to shout back, "Of course it's no good, you idiot! It's a first draft! But I wanna have some fun, here. I have something to say, and I'm going to say it, and by the time my book is bound, I will have said it as best as I can."

Revision can be the sandbox where you play, digging for treasure, building castles and tearing them down again and loving every minute of it, or it can be the mudpit where you get stuck spinning your wheels. Of course I much prefer the sandbox, and it's way more fun to be there when I'm not criticizing my draft as, well, nothing more than a ton of sand. To get there, you've got to accept your draft for what it is, where it is, at any given time. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, "Wherever you go, there you are."

Your manuscript will get to where you want it to be. But first you need to accept where it is. And you need to accept what it is not as well as what it is. Some days pulling out the words will be like pulling teeth. Some days will be the mudpit. You've got to allow your draft to be bad. And you can joke about it being bad, by all means; but you've also got to cut yourself some slack. And by god, you've got to have some fun. At some point, give up spinning your wheels in the mud and start making mudpies. What's the point of writing, otherwise?


Anonymous said...

Just so you know...

There are many in the Sandbox who would be happy to read things over for you.


Pam Purtle

Elisa said...

I do, Pam -- I do! Part 2 isn't ready yet, but I'll be calling on youz guyz when it is.

Thanks for the happy reminder... I loves youz guyz!

Lena said...

Thanks for sharing. I bang out my writing while it's flowing, once it stops flowing, I'll let it sit and then edit and then write some more. I am still trying to learn to write without stopping to edit, to just get all down on paper, but it's so hard.

Nice post. I enjoyed it.

Elisa said...

Lena, I sometimes do the same thing. Even last night, I wanted to write a little more. Instead I re-read what I'd written during the day, and made little edits here and there. Sometimes the nice thing about that is that you discover the writing wasn't as bad as you thought it was while you were writing it!

Happy mudpie-making!

politicalcenter said...

Elisa, I have just joined you. Jon at SOC Oracle had you listed and I am drinking in your words also. I started a political blog John's American Voice and am fighting through that fear of perfection. I will be following you and using your inspiration as I move forward. Thanks for the fantastic blog to learn from. John.

Elisa said...

Thanks so much, John -- hope I don't disappoint! (It motivates me to not wait so long between posts, at least.)


Anonymous said...

Hi Elisa -
I just finished "Faking It" and immediately downloaded "Ordinary World" and checked out your blog! I am a blogger-wannabe and your post spoke to what hangs me up from actually sending my writing out there, so thanks for sharing your thoughts.

BTW, I remember you from the dearly departed and fondly remembered Aaron Sorkin Facebook group - I was a chronic lurker (see above paragraph) but sure miss the great discourse.

-Kristi McGee

Elisa said...

Kristi, thanks so much! Hope you like OW.

Can't tell you how many close friends I've made as a result of that "dearly departed and fondly remembered" forum (couldn't have said it better myself). I keep forgetting that there are a few I have yet to meet in person. I miss it very much, especially Aaron.

So nice to "meet" another former member (and lurker)-- Hope you'll stick around here, and get that blog started (I'll be a reader)!