Occasionally, or perhaps, often, drafting seems to be the part of writing that gets all the glory. How many words can you pound out in a day? How many pieces did you line up for submission? Get that chapbook done yet?
And if you can offer suitably high numbers/positive answers to each of these questions, it can feel like you’ve accomplished an awful lot.
And you have.
Until you look at it again…
Now, I will be the last person on earth to say that we NEVER whip up solid ideas on the first pass. Holy shit, but it’s incredible the stuff that can come out of a flurried moment/hours put into crafting something readable, honest, and something you’re very happy to sign at the bottom. Sometimes, the first pass can leave you positively breathless. I like that feeling.
Besides, occasionally, after our brains have had a chance to chew things over, sometimes you work your way out of a powerful image. Consider:
First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash. For instance, the phrase “I cut the daisy from my throat” shot through my mind. Now my second thought, carefully tutored in 1+1=2 logic, in politeness, fear, and embarrassment at the natural, would say, “That’s ridiculous. You sound suicidal. Don’t show yourself cutting your throat. Someone will think you are crazy.” And instead, if we give the censor its way, we write, “My throat was a little sore, so I didn’t say anything.” Proper and boring. — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones, 9
Indeed, the second formulation doesn’t really have the same power, the same punch as the first rendering.
…which isn’t to say that the internal censor is totally unnecessary. Coming from someone who often speaks first and thinks later, I can tell you that censor can make life a damn sight easier than the alternative.
But, with writing, even with the potential power of the first draft, a piece is still probably not going to be publishable immediately after you put in the last period (or signed your name; whatever). And so we edit.
I have a friend who, during his long stint in university English, told me some classes required up to 11 drafts of a piece before submitting. I don’t actually know that I’ve ever gone over a single work that many times. I’ve said it so many times now, it probably doesn’t even bear mentioning, but I like my poetry to be rough around the edges, so to speak: packed with first-thought power. Quite possibly, my general outlook on life, enjoying the grotesque and the beautiful in equal measure, affects this. I don’t really enjoy the over-edited-polished-to-perfection-like-something-that-belongs-in-a-clinic-or-hospital-setting work. These just don’t resonate with me. It’s possible to be TOO correct. And, whoever we are, we’re all reading hoping to connect with something.
When you edit publications, here on Medium or elsewhere, you can’t escape this process. You’ve got to read a submission, all the way through, maybe even several times, and you weigh and consider it as you do so. You’re watching for nuances, for consistency, for tone, for anything too, too jarring, and, of course, grammar.
It really brings the (less glamourous) cousin of writing to the fore. You don’t get to escape it, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s helpful to remember we’re not perfect the first time. It’s useful to note where and when we fuck up, and if you just perhaps need to start all over. It’s surely not the end of the writing journey. It is important.
I love having other eyes on my work. I’ve been so thrilled with the way a piece can turn out with just a few good constructive comments from getting others to read my work, getting people to point out what might not be working in my favour — it’s not always gratifying, granted. But that’s when you’ve absolutely got to remember that you are not your writing, however joined at the hip, head, or heart you think you are.
You’ll produce better stuff if you can keep that distance.
Editing: probably no one’s favourite part of writing, but it pays to embrace the whole process.
J.D. Harms 2021