The best thing about writing—on a computer at least—is I can start off writing pure shit but know that that shit can be reworked, remolded, and reconstituted into something much less pungent.
In the best of times, a piece magically writes itself and doesn’t need much revision. But on a normal day, I start writing at what I think is the beginning and hope that will lead to the middle and then to the end, which I usually have in mind before I start. Sometimes—often, even—the beginning is not at all good, and I have to keep smacking myself to keep from letting how bad it is (and how long it’s taking to write so badly) stop me.
And I want to stop. I want to flog myself with a typewriter ribbon for being such a talentless hack. But I press on, head toward the next switch on the circuit and hope it’ll turn on a light.
Going from a bad beginning to what looks like it’ll be a bad middle can be demoralizing. In that case, I’ll move on to another part, perhaps to the ending, and that will help crystallize the parts that lead up to it. I can only hope.
When a page or two is in place, I reread the drek from the beginning. As I read, a word gets nipped here, a sentence discarded there. A clever thought comes to mind, so I tap it into place. Sometimes whole paragraphs get flushed. And it’s better, but it’s still shit.
At that point, I like to tuck that baby in for the night and check on it in the morning. As awful as it was when I turned off the computer, it’s always better the next day, like a Jewish brisket. And then I begin the endless cycle of revision that, on a typewriter, would generate an impractical number of drafts. But after a mere 1000 editing cycles or so, I’ve usually turned a drab tale into something amusing, or poignant, or whatever it was I was shooting for.
Here’s an example, from Monday’s essay, Against Type. It wasn’t the worst first draft ever, but it was pretty stinky. I’d told the story before and knew the idea was sound, but getting writing control over it turned out to be a challenge. To give you an idea, the final version was 760 words; the first was on its way to being well over 1000.
The first draft left off here:
Dale and I had been working on my high school reunion together. We had talked a few times and gotten together once. I’d actually known Dale—sort of—for a while. He was my first date after my divorce, even though he apparently didn’t think it was a date.
Reading it now, all I can think is: way too much detail, how much more monotonous could the tone be, and who the hell cares? Here’s the revision:
The one thing we had in common was that we had graduated high school together. That’s why we were in touch; we were working on a class reunion.
Here’s some meandering that ended up on the cutting room floor. I sound like a snooty bitch, and it’s not at all what I think about Dale, who’s one of my best friends. Hold your nose:
You just had to look at us, or spend ten minutes talking to us to see we didn’t go together. When I invited Dale to come to a play with me, he confessed he had never been to a play before. […awful snooty stuff…] Our backgrounds are so different, we had very little common ground in terms of upbringing. […] He was quiet and emotionally constipated; I came from a Jewish family where we were fairly, well, loose with the emotion.
As excruciating as that is to share (and the deleted parts, which I’d share if they wouldn’t hurt Dale, are so much worse), I hope it’s illuminating as to the benefits of revision.
Revision can result in not just cuts but valuable additions. For example, there was nothing in the first draft about being Irish, but once I got the Freud quote in my head, I put all my intellectual resources into figuring out how to include it. Now I think the Irish arc makes the piece.
My process, then, is to take extreme advantage of the temporary nature of words on a computer screen, and cut without mercy. Thank God for the computer. I can only imagine the pile of dung I’d be surrounded by without it.
(And now let’s see if I can pull this 925-word draft into the 750-word range. 768. Close enough. Interestingly, the first revision of this piece happened to be truly abysmal and has taken a month of marinating and many hours of editing to improve. Such extensive revision on a piece about revision reminds me of Escher’s classic Hands Drawing Hands, which I wish I could include a picture of instead of a link, but it’s copyrighted. Dang.)