In my “it’s a new year, let’s do something productive” stage, I’ve begun serious work on a memoir. The plan is to write eight interlocking essays that will also stand on their own – meaning a reader could theoretically read any one essay from the collection and have a complete narrative without needing to read the entire collection while at the same time providing a book-length narrative that is cohesive and engaging when read altogether. So far, the essays have been roughly outlined, titles have been played with, and the first essay of the collection is in the drafting stages. Things were moving along just swimmingly until I found myself in a place that I’m certain is common to prose writers but that is oh-so-new to me. The essay seems to be veering off course. Or, more precisely, the essay is demanding more than I had originally intended to include. What’s more, even I am getting a little bored with the asides that have taken the central event (my mother’s third wedding) almost completely out of the picture.
Lately, I’ve been reading a collection of nonfiction prose titled Literary Journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer. There are a few duds in the book, essays that, for one reason or another, don’t resonate with me and therefore don’t hold my attention. But there are many essays that are surprisingly captivating. I say surprisingly because they’re about topics in which I wouldn’t normally find myself engrossed: super computers, the formation of ice in rivers, the evolution of money market accounts. And I’m finding there’s a lot to be learned from both the duds and the shockers alike. But what has had me stuck in my own writing over the past couple of days is the very thing that gets me stuck while reading the duds: too many tangents that aren’t, in the end, interesting enough to be humored. As a reader, I’m willing to humor an author who goes off on one tangent after another before eventually returning to the original narrative IF those tangents are interesting, entertaining, educational, or in some other way hold my attention. If they aren’t or don’t, well….I’m just as likely to skip ahead to the next essay or close the book altogether.
I’ve been mired in this struggle for several days – unable to adequately revise the piece and unable to move forward with it. But today, I read Cathy Day’s “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis” in The Millions in which she looks at the question: why aren’t students skilled novelists when coming out of fiction MFA programs?
Sometimes a left-handed novelist is wise or stubborn enough to realize that he is not a right-handed story writer with horrible penmanship, but more accurately a beautiful left-handed novelist with perfectly fine penmanship. When he is alone, away from school, he brandishes the pencil in his left hand and sighs. Ahhhhhh. Then in college, he takes a workshop, which is full of nothing but right-handed desks. He puts the pencil in his right hand. Out of necessity, he’s become ambidextrous. And so, he goes through the motions of writing right-handed short stories for class. Assignments that must be completed. Hoops to jump through so that he can be in this class, read books for credit, and get a degree in the writing of fiction. At night, he goes home and puts the pencil in his left hand and works some more on his novel, the pages of which he never submits to his teacher, whose syllabus clearly states that they are to submit short stories that are 8-15 pages long.
Day’s argument is thought-provoking. Ironically, her essay had a nearly opposite effect from the one intended. I ended up being reminded that, yes, a community of writers reading and critiquing my work is what’s missing. This is not to say that I disagree with her point that the MFA workshop needs to be reconsidered and restructured; that argument is simply beside the point for me. Today. Today, I’m much more concerned with the needs of the essay I’m writing.
But Day’s essay makes another point that is completely relevant to my current situation:
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed.
Jeez Louise! How could I have forgotten that very simple truth? As writers, I think we sometimes put far too much pressure on our first drafts. I find myself constantly revising while writing – going back, re-reading, adding, deleting, shifting – instead of just pushing through. I get caught up in it. Sometimes I get so caught up in it that, like recently, I can’t move forward.
We all need to be reminded that our first drafts are just that – drafts. Stop thinking of them as complete essays or, god forbid, books. Nothing will stop you so completely dead in your tracks as that kind of pressure. The revision comes later. The revision comes later. The revision comes LATER. For now, just write the damned thing!