Monday, November 17, 2008

Toni Morrison on rewriting

From What Moves at the Margin, a new collection of nonfiction essays by Toni Morrison earlier this year:

When you first start writing--and I think it's true for a lot of beginning writers--you're scared to death that if you don't get that sentence right that minute it's never going to show up again. And it isn't. But it doesn't matter--another one will, and it'll probably be better. And I don't mind writing badly for a couple of days because I know I can fix it--and fix it again and again and again, and it will be better. I don't have the hysteria that used to accompany some of those dazzling passages that I thought the world was just dying for me to remember. I'm a little more sanguine about it now. Because the best part of it all, the absolutely most delicious part, is finishing it and then doing it over. That's the thrill of a lifetime for me: if I can just get done with that first phase and then have infinite time to fix it and change it. I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it looks like I never did. I try to make it look like I never touched it, and that it takes a lot of time and lot of sweat. (pg. 79)

I try to give credit to others for the various ideas about writing that have influenced me, but there is one formulation of my personal philosophy that I'm going to claim for myself. For years I have confidently told my students in freshman comp classes that "There are no rules for writing; there are only rules for re-writing." What I was getting at is that all of us as writers in whatever form sit down at the desk with a head full of rules (don't end a sentence with a preposition; write what you know; write with a reader in mind; have a strong thesis . . . ) and that, while all of those rules are something you should seriously consider observing, all of them are also baggage that slow you down during the first draft.

The trick that I discovered for myself--and that I've seen other writers articulate as Morrison does here; Anne Lamott's celebration of "Shitty First Drafts" is another--is to give yourself permission (even the assignment) during the drafting stage to write very poorly and very much contrary to all the rules. My wife calls these "zero-drafts," because they're less than a first draft. It's really raw material. In a sense, my own first draft would be better characterized as a zero-draft. It wasn't until the first rewrite was complete that I had something sensible and cohesive to really start trying to fix.

Giving yourself permission to write poorly at the beginning, gives you material to work with, and it's in the re-writing phase that you start to try and write well, by whatever rules you deem worthy of observing. I learned that habit in journalism and it served me well writing this book so far. Not incidentally, I've never felt like writer's block was a serious problem for me. I'm a little bit stuck-up about the subject. To me, it's a symptom of unrealistic expecatations about what a first draft should do. Personally, like Morrison, "I don't mind writing badly for a couple of days because I know I can fix it."

Now that I'm done bragging about my maturity, I have to confess that I'm not quite as sanguine as Morrison. In this project there has been a range of work so far between drafting and careful line revision. The drafting was a joy because it's all id--just creating a mess regardless of the consequences. The little bit of time I have put in with careful line revision has been pleasurable. I've heard writers, like Morrison here, describe that as the most pleasurable part, and I expect to enjoy it when I actually get to that stage. But in between has been this long process of figuring out what the book actually is and needs, and that has involved a lot more doubt and fear and hard slogging through. I have not enjoyed it except for the rare day when I find the solution to a problem and lay it out.

I'm hoping that my inexperience with writing a novel was the main cause of that and that in the future I'll both minimize the need for that process (with better planning) and live through it with less doubt and fear, because I will know what it is. In fact, I've been feeling a burst of confidence lately and fantasizing about when I can choose a second novel project and launch into that equipped with all the experience and perspective I've acquired this time.

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