Some artists begin with an outline of the work they’re doing and stick with it, starting in one corner and continuing to the opposite end. And, for many of them, once it’s filled in, that’s it, the piece is finished. Voila!
Others, like me, set forth in a particular direction with an expectation of what’s ahead but find ourselves often changing course as we go. And once the first draft is finished, we know it’s only a start, far from finished.
There’s a saying in writing that talent goes into that first draft, but genius comes in the revisions — if at all. That first draft can be exciting, even intoxicating, as the piece takes shape — in the case of writing, sometimes out of thin air.
Or, in the visual arts, there’s a description of someone who’s painterly — that is, scraping away earlier layers and painting over and over until something comes into focus. Oh, yes!
The truth is that first draft can be satisfying for its creator. You know where the story wants to go, who the characters are, how the pieces fit together. Your spelling can be irregular; the sentences, unfinished; the events as arbitrary as you wish. You could leave it there and turn elsewhere, should you decide. You don’t have to defend or explain anything.
On the other hand, if you wish to share your work with others, you’ll need to clean it up. Those who think otherwise are at least worthy of suspicion.
Which leads to the next step, one I think demands far more labor than the drafting stage and far more dedication. Revision.
For one thing, it means questioning everything that’s gone into that beloved first draft. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. Ouch! For another, it means asking yourself just what you meant in that brilliant phrase before you. And for me, at least, there’s a stage where I start trying to liberate whatever it is that’s lurking beneath the prose on the page. (Well, these days, the computer screen.) It means tearing apart what you’ve done, discarding large chunks of material, and inserting fresh insights. And it’s much messier than what you’ve done previously. Is there a special maid service for writers?
One item on my mental checklist regarding the revision process has to do with identifying certain words that keeping repeating through a long work like a novel. I then go back through the story, looking for synonyms that will give me another angle on the concept or thought being repeated. In What’s Left, for instance, I had family, restaurant, hippie, and Buddhism high on that list. What could I do to lessen the deadening recurrence of those terms? Slang, I might confess, can work wonders.
From my poetry, I’d long ago learned that this is where the work itself opens into something totally new. What do I really mean here? What is the text trying to say to me? How can I liberate it? Or make it burst into flames?
OK, this sound pretty haughty, but it’s all part of the obsession.
As a parallel, let me suggest cooking, since it’s an element in the background of my new novel. Just look at how the ingredients cook down into something quite different. There’s much more than just throwing a steak on the grill or opening a bag of shredded lettuce. (Especially if you’re going to join me at Carmichael’s in the novel.)
To return to the question of just when is it finished for me, I’d like to say once the work’s been published. But that may be rushing reality.
A thorough revision can leave me exhausted, feeling I have nothing more of value to add. (At least for now.) Or maybe I’m finally released from the subject — it can move into the public arena now.
Thinking of What’s Left, I might mention a parallel in the visual arts where I originally saw the earlier chapters as pop art masters Roy Lichtenstein and then Robert Rauschenberg but narrowing into the black-and-white lithographs of Peter Milton. But then my perspective reversed!
Do you ever look at events around you like an ongoing movie? (Sometimes even as a cartoon, as I do?)
What would you use as the title for your life?