Responding to your responses to the "CommComm" drafts...
Last Sunday, behind the paywall, for paid subscribers, I offered some early drafts of a story of mine called “CommComm,” as well as some samples of the edits I did with Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker.
They’re still back there if you want to have a look.
My impulse in sharing these drafts came from a fascination with how a story actually gets written — how it might go from a big sprawling mess to something organized and even moving.
I truly still don’t understand that process and hope I never do.
But I find thinking about process interesting. It’s ultimately about how the mind works, isn’t it? — about how we refine an initial idea or image. Really, it’s about who we are as people. Do we become “stuck in” the person who wrote the first draft? Or are we willing to accept ourselves as the totality of every person represented by the drafts along the way?
It’s also about a grand mystery: how can wisdom arise from this thing we call “the subconscious.” How is it that we can come to know more than we are, at first, able to express? Why does rewriting seem to lure this additional wisdom out? How is it that an early draft, written freely and then compressed, can say some of the truest things we’ve ever managed to say?
So, for all of these reasons, I don’t mind, at all, examining the trails in the dirt that lead to the final version. To me, it seems like a positive thing, to wonder: How did that happen, anyway? To that person and artist I used to be?
In the end, the fact of the finished story is really all I care about. How I got it there - I don’t feel protective of that, really. (If I can hit the free throw that wins the game, go ahead and show the videos of me missing repeatedly.)
However the story got there, the path to it is, by definition, “process.”
That is, the juxtaposition of those two versions of “CommComm” is the purest, most honest depiction of “process” I could ever offer.
Although, admittedly, that doesn’t help much. The real question has to do with how one goes from an early, playful, shapeless (fun!) blob to something more disciplined, that might even move a reader - by what means? That is: on what basis, exactly are we making all those cuts and adds and rearrangements?
For me, as I’ve said here many times, the process is to keep making small changes, over and over, by taste. Over time, things start to happen. I’m looking for some forward motion to kick in; some connectivity between bits to arise; increased causation to appear. I’m trying to get this part here to start cross-talking with this other part; for a given scene to feel like it’s causing something or being caused by something.
There’s a feeling of wanting the broad comic riffs in the early mess to start having some structure - hoping for some mild form of rising action to appear. (To just make three jokes on the same topic is not structure. They just sit there, not influencing one another. But: if the jokes get more pointed, and then cause some action - now we’re talking.)
I’m really just diving in and preferring this to that, over and over - and it’s the “over and over” that makes it all work.
But if I’m being completely frank, I know that’s all pretty vague and unusable, so let me try to go a little deeper, into the state of mind I’m in while editing.
What’s really operative for me during this sometimes years-long process of revision is a fanatical desire to not suck or be derivative or common — to pluck out things that I feel most people might leave in place/tolerate — to keep raising my internal bar re what sucks and what doesn’t, which means excluding things in the “not that bad” or the “basically ok” or the “we sure have seen a lot of this already, in other stories” or the “well, it’s not great but it has been in the story since the beginning, so…” categories.
To all of these, my response wants to be: “Hey! Inferior/boring/predictable/common bit! What are you doing in my story? Get out of here before you make things blah!”
This means, yes, losing a lot of text. It takes an obsessive mind. The state I’m in when working on a story isn’t calm or blissful or centered or particularly high-functioning - it’s more like a long steady run of quiet desperation, with occasional hope-blips.)
As some of you have noted, this process takes a lot of patience.
To be patient means, I suppose, being content, for awhile, with things being not so hot.
But, to be patient, we first have to know that things are currently not so hot; that is we have to have some sense of where, on the scale of all the things we’ve written, the current draft stands — we have to have acuity of judgment. We have to know when a given bit isn’t done yet. How do we know this? Well, in part, by comparing it to other, better, things we’ve written. We also might compare it to the work of the great masters, even to the point of being cheeky. (“Is this as funny as a Python sketch? If not, why not?”)
The reason we have to be patient — the reason we have to enact this voluntary suspension of our perfectionism — is to summon up more capacious material to polish.
I once heard a very great writer say that in her early drafts she was making a deep, messy hole, that would later house the foundation of the finished work; a big work needs a deep foundation.
And that somehow, for reasons I don’t fully understand, has to do with being willing to make a mess early on.
There’s not much forward momentum in the early, #26, draft, which is almost completely exploratory. It’s just a vast, wide Field of Jokes of Various Quality. Riffs that would come to be essential to the story are just phrases, or the merest attempts at humor, (quoting, I think, David Crosby here, RIP) which “go on too long, then fizzle out entirely.”
When I was working with this early draft, I knew it was loose. I knew it wasn’t what it finally would be. I wasn’t thinking, yet, in terms of “good vs. bad.” I was thinking in terms of “large vs. small” or “daring vs. tepid” or “open vs. boringly pre-decided.” I was trying to generate some proto-riffs: things that might become things that might become things. I was letting myself throw some paint around, as a teacher of mine (Tobias Wolff, to be exact) once put it.
I was exhibiting that admirable writerly trait called: “being willing to be a doof.”
Most of us, most of the time, write as if we’re trying not to mess up, or appear dumb or unwitty - we write out of a place of not wanting to be (too) vulnerable. (I have in mind the image of someone taking a test next to a known cheater, arm wrapped defensively around his paper. That kid is us, writing, and what he’s protecting his text from is the judging world.)
We are trying, in other words, to go from empty page to masterpiece, in one stroke.
When I’m in the early stages, I don’t feel proud of, or protective of, the work as it stands. I’m trying to temporarily suspend my protective ego. I know I’ll eventually tighten the mess up. (After all, I’ve done it before.) Once I’ve generated, I’m going to cull, cull intensely, and whatever’s left - that’s what I’ll stand by.
Ultimately this process is about getting in touch with, refining, and then super-refining our taste, through the process of radically choosing. What stays in a story of ours? Not only in terms of sentences and phrases but also in terms of the larger, more amorphous things - shapes and structures and patterns?
The key to your originality lies in the answers (enacted answers, not merely declared answers) to that question.
And here’s the magical thing that has kept me writing all these years: the riffs that survive the culling necessary to go from Draft 26 to Final are the ones that, you will find, contain who you are as a writer; that contain the meaning that your subconscious “wanted” to convey. It will come as a surprise to you, what that final draft says, what it conveys. And it will seem astonishing, even to you, the person who wrote it, that a coherent story could come from those wayward, blurry, early drafts.
Thanks again for coming along on this long “CommComm” exploration. I hope you’ve found some benefit in it.
Also, a quick thanks to Chris Brunt, for hosting me on his podcast PODRE. I know Chris and his wife, the writer Chanelle Benz, from when they were students at Syracuse. Both are wonderful writers, people, teachers. (I might recommend Chris’s poem, “All About Shadows,” and Chanelle’s collection of stories, The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead.)
It was such a pleasure talking to Chris, a very wise person and a kind soul. Hope you enjoy our talk too. (I believe there’s some praise, early on, for the wonder that is our Story Club community.)