I have been following my friend Mary Anne’s excellent blog which, amazingly, she is keeping up while on an artists’ residency. Today she posted about realizing that she might need to totally rewrite many passages in her work-in-progress: ”The somewhat mindless drudgery and exactitude that is also part of making art.”
I wrote this comment on her blog (and then realized I have even more to say about this):
I went through 20-30 drafts of every chapter of my book. It seems incredible to me now, and somewhat insane, but really I couldn’t have let it go any other way. And it got way better every single time. I’m judging a literary prize now, reading back-to-back fiction, and I *really* wish some of these authors had gone through their book at the finetuning-the-language level a couple more times. The comparison with visual artists (& musicians, etc) is a good one. It can be exciting to get fast about writing, especially when kicking out those early drafts (yay word count! thousands! tens of thousands!). And all of us do so much casual writing, blogging, emails, whatever, that it’s easy to get a bit casual about it, I think. But a book is not a tweet … I’m so happy you have the time to sink into your writing right now. It’s making me remember what is so fantastic about a residency, and long for some residency time myself!
When I’m teaching, I try to get students to freewrite, nice and fast and easy — letting go of inhibitions. I do most of my first drafting longhand, freewriting, just like that. For beginning writers, and for any writers beginning something, it feels like a fantastic way to work. I loved the experience of drafting 50,000 words of my novel in a single November — what a rush!
But later everything slows down. When I’m lucky it’s not stuck, mucky, yucky, muddy, confused slow — but sweet, afternoon light, chocolate sauce, lazyday, lovemaking slow. That’s the juicy part of my process: rewriting, writing over the old scripts, finding connections, making new leaps. Getting my fingers into the text. Moving a section, a paragraph, a sentence. Moving it again. Finding a better word. Finding the best word.
Because I do this work so slowly, I sometimes have to wrestle my inner Productivity Monster, who — shaped by Capitalism — has a definite preference for the ever-climbing word count. (“WHAT? We’re taking OUT words now? But that’s a minus … a deficit … oh no the word count is going in the RED! Just like the stock market! What if we lose the house??”)
So I love the (possibly apocryphal) story about Flaubert who, when asked how his work was going, is said to have replied, “Wonderful. I spent the morning putting in a comma — and then I spent the afternoon removing it.”
To me that doesn’t feel like drudgery. It’s the definition of luxury.
Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), post-Madame Bovary