28 February 2017

The First Draft

Writing is a way of life, a process that consumes waking and sleeping hours, from which an author cannot be separated. John McPhee shares an excerpt from his letter to his daughter in DRAFT NO. 4, which appeared in the April 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker:

“Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.”

The accomplished author McPhee encourages his daughter in her own work. The letter serves as a reminder that a written piece of quality passes through several stages on the road to completion. The initial draft is the first of many steps and can prove the most treacherous. Beginning anew requires initiative on the part of the writer who is bound to experience uncertainty in the trenches of a new literary undertaking.

In following through with a first draft, I string my words together like a continuous row of chairs on a ship's deck. The arrangement is dull, void of character. But the enormous efforts I expend materializing it on paper earn me a break. I feel like a passenger on a departing boat. My cabin awaits, but I linger on deck with a glass of sparkling water. I have a sense of what to expect at the journey's end, but the details are not entirely clear. I wonder if there is there still time to turn back. Although I have physically distanced myself from my desk, I question my thesis and mentally reconstruct my argument.

Upon my return to the page, I pick up my pen with a clearer perspective. I know what I want to say, how I want to say it, and why my message is worth saying. The sentences become eloquent. The continuous line of text is organized into paragraphs. Editing is comparable to opening my cabin door for the first time. I descended from the outside elements to my suite. The key turns the lock, the door opens, and the sunlight from the window engulfs me. I survey the surroundings, nod in agreement, and unpack my luggage, preparing for an extended stay.

The Writing Life

M.J.C.

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