Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rough Draft

You are not surprised when a student or client prefaces reading or sending their material to you with the warning, "This is a rough draft."  Perhaps this is some form of cosmic coming of age for those early years when you sent so much of your longer work out with only the slightest hint of revision, thinking to yourself as you did so, "What the hell, this is on-the-job training."

There are many positive things to be said for on-the-job training, not the least of them the steady production of work, held forth for peer examination.  Better still than on-the-job training, however, these strands of awareness writers must face if they hope to continue the pursuit of their craft.  (1) The stories of other writers that led them to wishing to become writers were far cries from rough draft, (2) There is nothing so daunting as trying to capture the early, hummingbird aspects of story in some coherent form, (3) Even when you think you've nailed it, an outside person will catch one or more glitches you hadn't even realized were there, (4) The outside person may not have the skills or experience of an editor, and (5) At best, if you work hard enough at the telling of your story, you stand a chance of avoiding humiliation.

All right; you've said it.  A thoughtful writer is at risk of humiliation.  Even writers who are not so thoughtful are at risk of failure.  Not all that long ago, September 5 of last year, to be exact, you had a reading and signing appearance at Skylight Books, in Los Angeles.  You were touched that a former student, Gina Nahai, herself a well-published and thoughtful writer, appeared, a warm body in support.  

During the Q and A following your reading, someone asked a question relative to revision and rewriting.  You said, in so many words, "A writer has to learn how to write all over again with each new project, otherwise she or he runs the risk of copying not only the previous works of other writers but the previous works of her or his self."

You saw Gina nod, ask you to repeat that, then write it down.  A few days later, it appeared in her Internet comments about craft.  She was least of all acknowledging your words, most of all recognizing the weight of their implications.  She is living proof of the way a thoughtful writer grows with each new work, facing risks, abandoning tricks that worked once before, finding hidden meanings under the cushions of old themes.

Rough draft means having spotted that hummingbird mentioned earlier, having achieved the state of watching it flit from shrub to shrub, its wings a furious flutter while it takes in its midday snack.  Then rough draft means a quick sketch in which you attempt to convey the entire Ecosystem, the glorious, iridescent bird, burning calories at a furious rate, seeking sustenance and, in the process of working at its own survival, transporting bits of pollen from shrub to shrub.  Their lifespan is three to four years, one notable example from a banded hummingbird that lasted nearly twelve years.

What you see, do, and understand, at first on levels not of entire clarity to you, work their way into this rough draft, which you bid yourself to pursue with as little thought and as much instinct as you can muster.  In this manner, your rough draft becomes a matrix for thought, for associations, for infusion of such qualities as theme, obstacles, focus.

This has happened to you:  During early moments, you are feeding on endorphins much the same way the hummingbird is feeding on nectar, the occasional bug or nit.  The wings of such craft as you have are aflutter as you dart from impression to impression, trying to hone this rough draft into something tangible, somethings that appears like a recognizable story, but, of course, not too recognizable, otherwise you would be copying, describing instead of composing.

About midway through, you shift metaphor to another of great familiarity to you, one for which, for some years, you ate with great gusto large platesful of pasta with lobster, the pasta, of course, the carbs a distance runner needs, and the lobster, loaded with glycogen, an aspect of glucose, used to store energy enough so that you will not experience the "hitting the wall" experience described by distance runners about those moments when their energy stores are gone and the body now has little recourse except to begin feeding on its own muscles.

Another time for comparisons between hitting the wall when writing and the same experience when running.  Suffice it for now to say there can be that mid-point moment of doubt, when you are devastated by the sense that this particular project has no merit, that you have stirred an unfriendly pot that needs no stirring, that you have embarked on a trip to a destination dumber to your tastes than Bakersfield or Disneyland.

You do not use these examples lightly, although you do use them to make fun of yourself.  You have been in Bakersfield and Disneyland.  You would be content to live out the remaining years of your lifespan with no additional visits to either.  They have become metaphor for failure, misdirection, humiliation.
How could you ever think to write something meaningful about hummingbirds?

Never mind that hummingbirds was an extended metaphor in the first place. Mind instead that you have moved beyond your boundaries and, like the experiences of dogs, when they encounter invisible electronic fences, yelp with the sudden, unexpected shock of the electric current meant to keep you from straying.

Days pass.  In some cases, months or even years, before you can bring yourself to look at the rough draft.  Doing so, you begin to feel the tingle again.  There are some good details here, ideas, themes.  If they were arranged properly, they might be able to carry weight.  In fact, isn't this paragraph right here a splendid example of the in medias res opening?  Couldn't you do something to make this character a bit more of a loner?  Couldn't you...

Rough draft.  Yes.  But.  Some writers you're aware of never stop revising their work.  Not only poets.  Remember the term "variorum" that so intrigued you those years back when you were the student.  All known varieties of a text, right?

True enough, life is also a rough draft.

1 comment:

Charles Smithdeal said...

Re "There is nothing so daunting as trying to capture the early, hummingbird aspects of story in some coherent form."

I fondly recall Shelly's response after reading one of my rough drafts some 20 years ago. A giant paper clip snugly enclosed the first 159 pages of my endorphin-perfused manuscript. His notorious/marvelous pen had drawn a giant red arrow pointing to page 160. His only comment: "Your story starts here."

Bless you, Shelly. Of course you were absolutely correct.