The Devil You Know: Rough Drafts

Poor revision, unfairly maligned due to a quirk of human nature!   We beasts prefer prowling on familiar territory, rooting up the same soil with the same scratching of our forelegs.   We know the terrain of a first draft:   the blank page, the tentative start, the discomfort of seeing our brilliant thoughts so diminished in print, the splash of joy when the words come, the adrenaline rush of stumbling onto insights or memories or characters we didn’t know we had, the satisfaction of completion.   We know that landscape and we’re quite attached to it, for good reason–it’s born much fruit and served us well.   The gifts of that first draft are worth cherishing.   And while we may admit the draft is rough, we also know it sparkles in places, and we’re unwilling to diminish that sparkle with the insult of revision.

Lest I discredit the rare genius, there are those who are able to revise in their heads, whose first draft is perfect, complete with layers of insight and meaning.   Those writing prior to the invention of the word processor were forced to economize in their writing process, and I believe were more mentally fit for the task than we sloppy, Microsoft Word-era writers.   I’m willing to concede that occasionally a writer comes along, lucky soul, who is able to draft a multifaceted piece in one go-round.   But they are few and far between.   I’ve yet to meet one.
The rest of us schmucks can’t depend on the brilliance of our being to smoothly translate our thoughts into good literature.

Our first drafts are flawed.   Our attachment makes this difficult to see.   This is the same phenomenon which makes family members, especially parents, miserable critics of our work.   Mom wants to see us succeed too badly; Dad is too worried about what others will think; neither has any objectivity because love and pride and self-consciousness are in the way.   When we look at our first drafts, love and pride and self-consciousness get tangled up in our material.   Even if we recognize the flaws, we’re satisfied.   After all, this is our baby!   (As an aside, the stage of writing my mother is most baffled by is revision.   “Isn’t it good enough yet ?” she asks repeatedly as I spend years revising.)

I’ve come to think of writers’ relationship with first drafts as better the devil you know.   Sure, the draft is flawed; sure, it’s only one of a dozen ways to approach this subject; sure, my language is loose in places.   But look at this lovely twist, here at the end!   I couldn’t mess with that by attempting a revision.   Or look at this streak of fine writing, or this brilliant insight!   Or–here’s a fine, devilish trick–do you have any idea how much work I’ve already put into this piece, how much of my heart is already invested?   I couldn’t possibly mess up this draft with revision.

Note how such attachment mires us writers.   Suddenly the great adventure of writing ends.   We put down the pen and file the pages, which then go nowhere.   Or if we send them out to be published, they get rejected and we give up.   But we’ve only scratched the surface of our subject!   There’s so much left to discover, so many more opportunities for growth, so many layers of insight yet to emerge.   Revision scares us because it’s a whole new landscape to explore, and now that we’ve taken one risk with our first draft we prefer to stay put.

But if you save your first draft rather than revising over that file, nothing you’ve written will be lost.   You can always pull out that brilliant sentence and use it again.   The a-ha moment at the end of your rough draft can become the premise of your second draft, and perhaps another a-ha will strike you before you reach the revision’s end.   If a second brilliant sentence comes to you, then your draft has two brilliant sentences and two a-ha’s!   So much is possible.

Thus nonattachment is central to the work of good writing.   Every bit of prose that emerges from our pens is a gift, and rather than hold it tightly we must learn to let it go.   In the mysterious ways of such things, letting go only magnifies rather than diminishes the gifts.   This is the spiritual practice of revision.   If we choose, we can apply the lessons of this practice to our lived lives as well, allowing our very selves to be revised.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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