This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
Not, I hasten to add, the military sort. (“Conscription is slavery, and I don’t think that any people or nation has a right to save itself at the price of slavery for anyone, no matter what name it is called.” Robert Heinlein).
Since my present WIP is the first draft of what for want of a better title I am calling Tsifira, the difficulties of the first draft loom large in my mind.
So I thought I’d share with you the wisdom of a few other writers on the gnarliness that is the first draft.
I love this analogy from Shannon Hale: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
Sir Terry Pratchett has gems on both the first draft:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
and on where the first draft stands in relation to the redrafting (at least for him):
“First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft.”
The writing/sculpture analogy is one that has been around for a while, but here is one of my favourite versions of it, from Anne Pillsworth: “The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you’ve laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you’ll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.”
Jennifer Egan puts her finger on a leading cause of first-draft writer’s block, one that I struggle greatly with:
“I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice. But then there will be good moments. It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.”
So what’s the solution? Just sit down and write it. (Just!) Dare to be awful – just get it down. Write it.
Easier to say than do, I know, but the only way to come out the other end is to keep plugging away at it.
And this is where the Duty element comes in. We do it because we must, not because we find this moment, just now, to be enjoyable.
As the good book says, they who go out weeping to sow the seed will return with shouts of joy, bringing the harvest with them. (Psalm 126.6).
Or as Steven Pressfield, somewhat less poetically puts it, “love being miserable”.
But this is not to say that the process will always and necessarily be an unpleasant one. As the Mother Superior in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil puts it: “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” Or as writers call it, flow. (More on that in a later post.)
Side note: who is better at loving the misery: Marines or nuns?
Not to suggest that either are masochistic, but when it comes to the All-Time Hacking-The-Nasty Tougher-Than-Thou contest, who’s got the edge? Those who face death (although quite possibly someone else’s), or those who die daily? Who would like to see that contest? Show of hands?
But the final word on Duty, Discipline and Devotion is brought to you by
the letter D the late great Pavarotti: “People think I’m disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.”
Most of the time we are not writing.
This is largely due to the Dreaded Day Job.
Ideally, of course, one would either have a job which fuelled the creative juices, or a job which left your mind entirely free for thinking about writing. (All right, ideally one would be able to write as much as one liked with no outside work and an enormous stipend, but join me in the real world for the sake of the argument. Also, bring back the non-ironic use of the gender-neutral indefinite pronoun. Thank you.)
If one does not have such a convenient job, the cold hard reality is that there’s precious little mental space left for the Work In Progress. One has to make the most of what time one has – to stoke and tend the fires of inspiration, so that when time is available. one wants to write – and is ready to write.
So how does one do this?
There are many strategies, but unfortunately a lot of them double as prime forms of procrastination.
Reading about writing is one of my favourites.
Reading books about how to write, books about writers I admire – they fill me with enthusiasm. Reading books in a similar genre or tone to whatever I’m working on – at best, they fill me with an envious delight (I wish I’d written that!) and at worst, they map out pitfalls to avoid in my own work.
The useful thing about reading about writing as opposed to writing itself is that it can be squeezed into any little gap in the day, providing there is a suitable book present.
Picking up a book and reading comes naturally to me (not picking up a book and reading requires concentration and effort), whereas picking up a pen and writing requires preceding thought and usually the spreading of associated papers over a wide area.
Daydreaming about the Work In Progress is even more handy for stolen moments here and there as it requires no paraphernalia. The downside is when one has a earth-shatteringly brilliant idea (perhaps the seed word for one’s WIP) and finds one has no way of writing it down.
Of course, writers are advised to keep pen and paper on their persons at all times, but even writers need to bathe. (please note: words written in condensation on shower walls are seldom legible afterward.)
While in the throes of the Dreaded Day Job, one can also use such things as images and music to seize the imagination and recall the mind to the story underway.
Perhaps your DDJ allows you to use a personal music player (of whatever sort) – then play yourself the soundtrack to your tale.
Or images – I often to change the wallpaper on my work computer to something that reminds me of my story, and every time I see it I get a little thrill of excitement, as the story flows through my mind again.
In fact (and I am sure I am not the first writer to whom this has occurred), the whole business of feeding the flames of writerhood is remarkably analogous to other forms of devotion – whether human or divine.
We dream of our beloved. We talk about our beloved to anyone who is prepared to listen (or too polite to run away). We cherish art and music that remind us of our beloved, and we want to learn everything there is to know about them.
There is no question here of chores, or duty. Every moment we can snatch with our beloved is a pleasure, a golden trophy plucked from the mire of workaday life.
Tell me, how do you keep your fires burning?