To start with, nobody does their best work first time out of the gate (we’re specifically talking about writing, but, come to think of it, that also applies to pretty much every field of human endeavour). In fact, Ms. Lamott says, first drafts are usually pretty awful. Case in point: she goes to great pains to talk about the angst she went through to write good reviews as a restaurant critic. (Although, for her sake, I hope she deliberately over-dramatized her angst when describing the process, because the picture she paints is of soul-shaking crises of confidence, each and every time. Yikes.)
Now, I don’t think anyone (except teenage students, possibly) would argue against this. Anything I write for students goes through several drafts. And my novel, Gryphon’s Heir, went through, if I remember rightly (it got a little hazy towards the end of the process), five distinct drafts. The first clocked in at a whopping 202,000 words, and to my dismay, I discovered, among other things, I have immense subconscious fondness for double adjectives. (Why use one word when six will do, right?) Fortunately, I listened to Stephen King’s advice that your second draft equals your first draft minus ten per cent. By the time I had finished the fifth draft --- complete with numerous suggestions by my editor and others --- the book clocked in at 186,000 words, give or take. And it had way more story, and way less unnecessary verbiage. Because it went through a great deal of killing of darlings, as A.Q-C says.
Ms. Lamott’s other point is that the beginning of any writing enterprise is usually the most difficult and terrifying moment of the process. Even the aforementioned Mr. K, Compleat Pro, says something to that effect. You stare at a blank piece of paper or screen. And you must Fill It with Reasonably Intelligent Thoughts. Yikes.
The second event occurred as I shared all this with a friend. After listening to my maunderings, she asked thoughtfully, “So, what is the writing process like for you? Terrifying to start? To continue?”
Hmm. Well, neither one, usually, at any rate. The metaphor I envisioned for her was writers are miners:
Each time you sit down to write, you figuratively don helmet and overalls, switch on the lamp, and head into the elevator. The wire mesh door crashes shut and you descend into the stygian depths of your imagination. Once there, you trudge through brightly lit tunnels, some dripping with moisture, others bone dry, eventually arriving at the mine face, which Wikipedia succinctly defines as “the surface where the mining work is advancing.” In writing, that’s the point where you left off. There are the final words from your last session… and then… nothing. Blankness. A character said something for which there is, as yet, no reply. Or a situation was developing and there it remains, frozen in time where you left off --- a character poised with a knife upraised, waiting for the blade to descend. And now you need to get the narrative rolling again. Find your pickaxe where you left it lying on the ground and get to work. Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work you go and all that.
(Okay, I exaggerate slightly… I usually try ending sessions with more resolution than this, mainly just because I’m That Sort of Bear --- and while I really want to resume writing the very next day, life inconveniently and inconsiderately does not always allow it. So I always try to leave the mine face, if not exactly pristine, at least not too shambolic… washing tools, putting them away relatively neatly and all that.)
Anyway, there I am, at the blank mine face. Except it’s really not blank at all, you know. There are usually all kinds of half-uncovered/discovered gems twinkling in the illumination of my imagination’s torch, especially if the Muse has donned a helmet too and kindly deigned to accompany me. (As with most writers, she doesn’t always. I’m afraid she’s rather fastidious, particularly if the mine face is wet and things are muddy, as they often can be; she’s also a wee bit fickle at times, so some days, she begs off with a headache that may or may not be imaginary and I’m left on my own to squint really hard finding those gems.) But she’s extraordinary at pointing out good stuff, noting which are the highest-grade gems, so on days when she’s along for the ride, man, things just scintillate.
And there they are, constellations of multifaceted, multicoloured gems twinkling in the mine face. My work is to delicately uncover as many as possible in a session, integrating them into the thread of my narrative --- sometimes with a pickaxe, more often a rock hammer. It’s not terrifying work at all --- mostly eminently satisfying and frequently joyous. I’m a happy miner when I write… and at times I do whistle while I work.
Hi ho, indeed.