Writing Right with Dmitri: On Writing and Re-Writing
Is your writing ideal something like this? You have a spark of an idea. You sit down, pen or keyboard in hand, and start writing. The matter just flows from your brain to the writing implement. Soon, the blank page, real or virtual, is just filled with beautiful words of wisdom. Nothing could be better. You sit back with a sigh of satisfaction.
I call this the Orgasmic School of Writing.
Expecting the craft of writing to work like this is probably the fault of 19th-century Romantics who peddled the notion of the Poet as inspired, possibly mad genius. It's all about the Muse and other imponderables. Whereas in reality, writing is a craft. You should no more expect writing to work like that than you should expect to be able to make dinner that way. Or build a cabinet. Or repair an automobile. It's work, and it goes in steps. A lot of bad writing is out there – particularly on the internet – because people publish unfinished work. If you tried to sell an unfinished cabinet, people would laugh at you.
Slow down, you move too fast, as the poet said. Have you ever heard the words 'first draft'? Remember them. Write down a first draft. Then read it over.
This is usually where the process begins to break down. Now that the first draft is on the page, it looks, er, official. You hate to change anything. This is due to two impulses: the first one is laziness. That's easy to dismiss: get over it. If you're that lazy, go take up another profession/hobby. This is work.
The second impulse is harder to spot. It's ego. Somehow, you have managed to identify what's on that page with some aspect of yourself. You think those words are attached to you. If anybody – an editor, say, or a teacher, or the part of your brain that knows better – tries to tell you, 'You know, that information would be so much more useful in paragraph three,' you react as if scalded. What do you mean, my first thought wasn't the perfect one? Conceit is a fault, and I don't have any.
Somehow, no matter how hard this is to do, you have to figure out how to do one thing: detach yourself from those words. They aren't you. They don't represent your True Self. They're just words on a page. Observers who point out that you need a stronger introduction, or a better conclusion, or more (or less!) detail, or whatever, aren't attacking your moral character. They're not criticising you. They're trying to help the product along.
Stop call it 'criticism'. And please stop calling it by the British term 'crit', because it grates on the inner ears of foreigners. The word 'criticism' as it is used today reinforces the idea that the process is adversarial. It's not. Because that text isn't you. It's just a text. You don't need to feel bad about a typo. Or a factual error you can correct. Or replacing your first idea with a more polished one.
Do you really believe that Charles Dickens' first impulse was to write 'It was the best of times, etc.'? Maybe it was, but maybe it wasn't. Read this Conservation Journal item about preserving the manuscripts of Charles Dickens. It says, 'Cancelled text and corrections are found on the verso. Corrections are also sometimes carried out by sticking another piece of paper across the cancelled text with seals.' See? He wrote and rewrote. And he didn't have a handy Word program to make corrections with, poor guy.
When you labour over a manuscript, and get frustrated, or when you fear the 'suggestions' of editors and 'helpful' readers, keep in mind that everyone who's ever written anything has been through the same. I recently read something by Thomas Keneally, who to my mind should win a Nobel. Keneally said he'd concluded that there were three things in the world you had to do for yourself: be born, die, and write your own novel. Louisa May Alcott was a best-selling author in her day, and a very bright person. She gives us a hint of how hard the beginning must have been for her, though, with this passage in her most famous book:
Lying back on the sofa, she read the manuscript carefully through, making dashes here and there, and putting in many exclamation points, which looked like little balloons. Then she tied it up with a smart red ribbon, and sat a minute looking at it with a sober, wistful expression, which plainly showed how earnest her work had been. Jo's desk up here was an old tin kitchen which hung against the wall. In it she kept her papers, and a few books, safely shut away from Scrabble, who, being likewise of a literary turn, was fond of making a circulating library of such books as were left in his way by eating the leaves. From this tin receptacle Jo produced another manuscript, and putting both in her pocket, crept quietly downstairs, leaving her friends to nibble on her pens and taste her ink.
She put on her hat and jacket as noiselessly as possible, and going to the back entry window, got out upon the roof of a low porch, swung herself down to the grassy bank, and took a roundabout way to the road. Once there, she composed herself, hailed a passing omnibus, and rolled away to town, looking very merry and mysterious.
If anyone had been watching her, he would have thought her movements decidedly peculiar, for on alighting, she went off at a great pace till she reached a certain number in a certain busy street. Having found the place with some difficulty, she went into the doorway, looked up the dirty stairs, and after standing stock still a minute, suddenly dived into the street and walked away as rapidly as she came. This maneuver she repeated several times, to the great amusement of a black-eyed young gentleman lounging in the window of a building opposite. On returning for the third time, Jo gave herself a shake, pulled her hat over her eyes, and walked up the stairs, looking as if she were going to have all her teeth out.
There was a dentist's sign, among others, which adorned the entrance, and after staring a moment at the pair of artificial jaws which slowly opened and shut to draw attention to a fine set of teeth, the young gentleman put on his coat, took his hat, and went down to post himself in the opposite doorway, saying with a smile and a shiver, "It's like her to come alone, but if she has a bad time she'll need someone to help her home."
In ten minutes Jo came running downstairs with a very red face and the general appearance of a person who had just passed through a trying ordeal of some sort. When she saw the young gentleman she looked anything but pleased, and passed him with a nod. But he followed, asking with an air of sympathy, "Did you have a bad time?"
"You got through quickly."
"Yes, thank goodness!"
"Why did you go alone?"
"Didn't want anyone to know."
"You're the oddest fellow I ever saw. How many did you have out?"
Jo looked at her friend as if she did not understand him, then began to laugh as if mightily amused at something.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
All of these people did rewrites. All of them had editors. That's why they're so good. So get over it, and learn to respect the process. Even if it's sometimes like pulling teeth.