The "Ceramic Pot" First Draft
I guess this question bubbled up in my mind because we've been discussing the art of revision, subtraction, etc. of late.
I have a bad habit of thinking of my first drafts as ceramic pots. Once I finish one with some degree of satisfaction, I start viewing that rendition as something that's been glazed, fired and cured into something tangible and therefore unchangeable—with all its crudely shaped lines but hopefully with some features that make it attractive and interesting.
How do I get beyond this? Let go of the "preciousness" of my creation? Retain malleability as a platform for successive drafts? Based on your experience, is this a universal hang up or just me? Do you ever feel this way about your early drafts?
Story Club is such a blessing and it's obvious that even with your insanely busy schedule, you make it a priority. I hope it's feeding you as much as it is us. Thank you!
Yes, what a wonderful question. It’s really something that you have this sharp awareness of your own process.
And I think the feeling you’re describing is not at all unusual.
We come out of that first draft with a real sense of excitement and accomplishment. We’ve surprised ourselves. The world we’ve just made is fresh in our mind. Understandably, it seems that if we feel that good about it….it must be good.
And there’s a justifiable fear that once we start monkeying with the story, we’ll descend into confusion. We’ll end up with fifteen drafts, each good in its own way…and how are we supposed to compile “the” version, out all of that mess, without losing something good?
So, I think we should start by saying that if those “ceramic pot” first drafts are doing what you want them to do – ranging from “making you happy to have done them” to “getting published somewhere” – then maybe there’s no need to go beyond that.
But if you feel there’s something more to be done – if people aren’t responding to your work as powerfully as you’d hoped, or you’ve sensed some untapped potential in those first drafts – then maybe a more vigorous type of revision might be worth a try.
And, with a nod to David Foster Wallace: this process really involves separating two very different things: how you felt when you wrote it, and how the reader will feel when she reads it.
I think it’s best to enter into editing with this mindset: we are just playfully trying something, in hopes of extracting, say, 10 percent more light from the piece, and we’re doing it out of love for the piece. We want it to be its best self, so we’re willing to open things up a bit, take a few chances, in service of the story and of our talent. We’re willing to endure the unpleasant, uncertain, neurotic feeling that comes with opening up a story to tinkering; we’re willing to forgo the comforting idea that, once we’re done with the first draft, that’s it: no more can be done.
What I find useful is the thought that I’m a fresh reader every time. That new reader’s opinion matters. It’s not perfect, not infallible, but it gets to have its moment in the sun.
So, no matter what I thought of my story yesterday, this new person reading it today has a right to his view. And he is allowed to make changes, even radical, potentially terrible ones.
After all, we’ve got yesterday’s draft saved and can always easily revert.
All it really takes is one occurrence of changing something for the better in that “ceramic pot” first draft to make a convert of a person. You compare the old and improved version of a given paragraph and, think, “Well, yes, I prefer the improved one. I absolutely will NOT go back to the previous, inferior version.” (Maybe we prefer the changed version just slightly; maybe only for today; but, since it really is how we feel today, we’re going to honor it as the only way of moving forward at the moment).
So, you put that change in, read the larger section again, see what adjustments occur to you – and then, taking a leap of faith, you make those changes as well. (And all the time, you’re reassuring yourself: “I can always go back to that (saved) first draft. I’m not losing anything here, not taking any steps that can’t be reversed.”)
I sometimes think of the way that a rock climber, under protection, can try a difficult move over and over. The saved first draft = the piton in the rock.
And we have to trust the subconscious mind: trust that all of this back and forth that its doing in subsequent rounds of revision isn’t random (although sometimes it will feel that way).
We’re basically trusting that these waves of preference we’re imposing will, in time, lead us out of the woods, to a place of greater certainty.
People often wonder: But what if I make it worse?
And my answer is: You probably will, at least briefly.
But we are banking on the fact that, at that time, you’ll be able to see that - to be able to see that yesterday’s changes, as good as they felt….weren’t. Weren’t great. And then we can revise our revisions. (And later we can revise our revision to our revisions - the fun never ends.)
This process is really about getting in touch with, and becoming comfortable with, one’s own taste.
That taste might speak to you very faintly at first. But we are training ourselves to listen for it, and then to get better at honoring it. What happens, weirdly, is that the more acutely we listen for it, the more loudly and confidently it will start speaking to us.
And once that team (us + our taste) has a few successes, both components of it get more confident. Your taste gets refined and brash; you, listening for it, become more daring in enacting its wishes, more willing to take chances on its behalf.
But everyone has a different relationship with editing. Some of us can tolerate a high degree of this obsessive back-and-forth. Others, less so. Some people, in revision, might find themselves leaving the language relatively intact but inventing new scenes, or moving the old ones around. Others have to obsess over things at the sentence level in order to produce plot, energy, interest, etc. Some writers tend to be more attentive to narrative logic than others. Some people don’t want much to do with editing and rely on that flow we get into in a first draft. Some people write a sentence at a time and don’t move on until it feels perfect; others fly through, making a first draft that they know is wobbly, then work through from the beginning.
But every one of these methods is ultimately about finding the mode in which we are most attentive to our text.
Which is another way of saying: the process is about figuring out how you, in particular, can best infuse a piece of writing with your taste.
And even though all of us are involved in getting and receiving writing advice, in the end, we have to be able to say that there is no right answer but the one I find for myself.
And there’s no need – none at all – to articulate or defend that approach or make it match or comply with any teacher’s schtick.
And I mean: no need at all, for real.
I sometimes have to say this to myself: You are about the doing, not the talking about the doing.
Although, as above, I like to talk about the doing. :)
There’s a terrific anecdote in the only self help book that’s ever helped me. “Art and Fear” is by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They describe a pottery class divided into two groups. One group is told they’ll be graded on the quality of one pot which they can remake as many times as they like. The other half is told they’ll be graded on the quantity of pots they make. At the end of the semester, those in the “quantity group” are vastly better potters.
It’s only by permitting myself to make tons of just-okay pots that I seem to make progress! Sometimes you have to make bad work--and lots of it! Somehow things improve that way.
oh, dear Lord, i like to talk about the doing, too....
And of course, I have something to add to George's great and thoughtful response.....
You, dear questioner, write: "How do I get beyond this? Let go of the "preciousness" of my creation?" And I can tell you what works for me, if you want to hear/read it.
I put that ceramic pot of which you speak into a drawer and I absolutely do not look at it for as long as possible. For instance, right now, a story I wrote last year is in the drawer. i'm on the verge of pulling it out--it's been over 6 months since i last looked at it. And I'll tell you what will happen when I finally read it again. I'll say--wait, i wrote this? Because when you step away for a good length of time and you work on other things, you eventually forget what you wrote before. And now, having waited, you can really and truly see it with those fresh eyes everyone's always talking about. You can toss those sentences that you once loved (and maybe find you love again) but which aren't working any more for this piece. You can cut and cut brutally. Or you can read and find out--voila! the little ceramic pot is already perfect!
So that's what i'd add to George's great advice. Give your work a rest. Return to it later when you're a different person.