Thursday, March 3, 2016

First Drafts and Beyond

Most days as you awaken, you hear a faint sizzle. If your dreams have been particularly existential, you may even catch a whiff of some acrid reality.

The sizzle has nothing to do with cooking; it is the sound of a long fuse having been lit. The acrid reality means you can smell the fuse burning.

Every day is a lit fuse, every story is a lit fuse, every moment, when you're on your way home, hitting one of the hilltops on Garden Street, where you catch to the south a glimpse of the liquid gold sun, trapped in the ocean, a fuse is sizzling away. These days, the sizzle and smell seem to settle in around your computer, where the book you're working on is waiting for you with questions about your plans for it and, on occasion, your sanity.

You have a number of writer friends who are indulging a wary relationship with understanding  as much about their writing process as possible, particularly resistant to psychotherapy onm the fearful grounds that therapy might make them more comfortable as persons but less probing and insightful as a writer.

You have a different take on the matter, notwithstanding the fact that you don't feel you came out of your twice-weekly visits to a psychiatrist with much insight into yourself or the writing process. In some ways, there is a link between those afternoons on Bedford Avenue in Beverly Hills, once estimated to have the world's greatest density of psychiatric offices in all of America, and your experience with cancer; you go for days, weeks at a time without thoughts of your experiences with either.

The good shrink did give you a useful way of developing characters, So too did the urologist who relieved you of some tissue that did harbor cancerous cells, and a few bits of tissue where such cells might have migrated, had they the opportunity. As of this day, you feel no need to retain the services of shrink or surgeon for help as you pursue the warp and weft of your life.

When you do think about cancer, as you did when, this past Sunday, you bumped fists with your eldest niece in acknowledgment that you'd both come out the other side after the diagnosis, you have it filed as another ordeal one experiences as a participant in life. Living things have ordeals. Some say the act of being born is one of the major ordeals of life. Some cynics equate being born to a cosmic fuse being lit on your behalf.

Whatever.

Another such fuse was lit on your behalf, probably around the time you were starting to play with fire in the sense of carrying around paper matches in order to fulfill your chore of disposibng of the garbage for your family, back in the days when there were incinerators in every back yard. 

This was the fuse of the discovery of reading. This was the rainy afternoon when a teacher, desperate for ways to distract fourth grade energy, read the opening chapter of Huckleberry Finn. You can still hear the sizzle of that just when, the next day, you asked the teacher if people who wrote such things were able to have that as their job.

Another fuse was lit some years later after the discovery that you'd been led down the garden path of thinking storytelling was easy because of the apparent ease with which all your favored authors wrote. Through accident of birth, you appeared in times where numerous magazines appeared, regularly offering short stories, serialized novels, condensed novels. 

More than once you found in some major publication a story from an author either of your own age or perhaps a few years beyond you--but not much. Thus you were confronted with a range of inviting story from a diverse spectrum of writers, all of whom had the ability to make the work seem easy.

You'd had enough misadventure with algebra and geometry to conflate those difficulties with your attempts to master the techniques of storytelling. All of this is backstory to the attempts you were making, the successes, the failures, and the fatalistic beliefs that you were doomed to a life of attempt, the sizzle and acrid smell of lit fuses your waking and sleeping companions.

First drafts were and remain to this day entirely for you. These represent your attempt to in effect take a photograph of a hummingbird with a Baby Brownie camera, a reach with a short-handled net to capture an exotic butterfly that has landed ten or twelve feet away. First draft is your attempt to recognize and define some detail that has set you to an interior humming and excitement born of amazement at never having made such a connection before. 

By the time you were writing and completing entire drafts, you were aware of the notion that the test of any good creative idea rests in the creator's belief that he or she lacks the ability to do justice to the project. Ideas that are too easy are beneath dignity. 

First drafts for you reflect this sense of reaching beyond your immediate grasp, thus the sense of anticipation: If you can bring this off, if you can make this work, you will have accomplished a great, transformative mischief whereby no one will dare suggest you show restraint, behave yourself, or the most emphatic, "Grow up!"  Thus the easygoing conflation of childlike glee at the thought of being able to capture the narrative, regardless of its emotional payoff.

Much of the second draft keeps you focused on making the work provide you with that sense of mischievous joy seeming to linger about the material as incentive for you to reach beyond your perceived means to make the story work. At this stage, you are only barely beginning to think of the readers, if any, the merest concern about whether someone reading this piece will see what you're getting at, how they will relate to the characters, whether they will feel the time they'd have spent reading the story would be worth their time.

By the third or fourth time through, you'll have switched your allegiance to the reader, wondering if the story will reach beyond mere making sense, reach into tugging at the heart strings. There will by now be no surprises. Each draft eats up a surprise to the point where you might conclude the narrative is a bust because there are no humming birds or butterflies, only your words, plodding along.

Now, you can ask yourself some serious questions. What, for instance, is missing?  What would you have to do, put in, exaggerate, tone down, remove altogether, in order to bring back that glorious shimmer of mischief you experienced earlier?

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