Friday, March 26, 2010

Learning not merely how to write but when to write it

In a meeting with a student yesterday, you were handed your own reading copy of a manuscript that turned out to be exactly what you asked for: the first draft, the very first draft of the first scene of a short story. As you read through it, one minor suggestion quickly arose--reverse the order of the first two sentences. A mere editorial enhancement. Reading farther along, you felt yourself gripped by a growing sense of unease that had nothing whatsoever to do with the student, who after all truly did give you exactly what you'd asked. Rather the sense of discomfort spreading just below the enjoyment level of your medium latte was a strike of lightning hitting you, particularly the you of the past, directly in the middle of your attitude.


Unfortunately for you, there was a time when you conflated energy for writing with first-draft performance. If you messed up with a word or sentence, you merely struck it out and substituted right there on the spot. This effectively meant first draft was the only draft. You took great refuge in the thought that being a lousy speller meant you had to go through the first draft to clean up spelling errors. Even novels were produced this way, thought out for their form then written as quickly as you could, then shipped off to whoever would have them. You felt a kinship with one of your heroes, Fitzgerald. You couldn't spell, either, and you had a great affinity for such potables as scotch, bourbon, vodka, and a wide range of liqueurs such as Benedictine, strega, amaretto, and anything with a licorice aftertaste. Mornings after, you consulted the ramos gin fizz, which often meant you had to be in San Francisco because where better to get the ramos gin fizz than the Buena Vista at Sunday morning breakfast.

So much for all that.

What the student had done, you noticed, was a nearly pitch-perfect map or chart of the emotions of the protagonist of the tale, line by line. You were able to see beyond the literalness and excess of the lines of text into the perfectly placed responses the character was experiencing as the scene progressed. The student was so successful in this that you wondered, still smarting from the lightening strike who had taught whom.

You are quite fond of saying (and sincere in the saying of it) "Don't think during the first draft. Get down what comes out. The thinking comes in subsequent drafts."

You are also quite fond of saying that however much fun the first draft is, revision is even more so because it is in this process of entering the story that your own awareness of feelings, subtexts, and intentions come forth or need to be made to come forth. As you were imparting this theory of yours yesterday, it metastasized into an overt strategy, representing yet another nuance of your theory about the ways in which drama inheres in the developing story.

It helps also to have been reading the splendid novel, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, in which the characters' agendas so deftly and convincingly define them.

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