As the National "Write a Novel in Month" battle begins in earnest, the first in a series of dispatches from the front lines:
The worst temptation in writing is the need to be perfect. You want a paragraph to be finished when you finish it. You’ve been struggling with sentences for years – you ought to be able to knock out a decent one without all those stops, starts and cross-outs. People who give lectures long enough wind up doing it extemporaneously, and you certainly don’t revise your daily conversation, which can be quite charming and witty when the engines are hitting on all cylinders. Why fiddle endlessly with your prose? Writing should be like jazz – improvisation held to order by the ‘chord changes’ of the plot. Why squash that glorious spontaneity with endless tedious revisions? It shouldn’t be necessary!
But of course it is. The trick is not just to accept that laborious fact but to embrace it. A first draft, the free-wheeling first sketch of a scene, scribbled into a convenient moleskine notebook with a favorite pen, can turn into a liberating exercise. You don’t have to worry about the transition into and out of the scene (taking off and landing that narrative 747 is always the riskiest part of the trip). Just jump min anywhere and start those characters talking. If you only use one line of the mess you make, you’re one line ahead, and you will have probably taught yourself something about exposition in dialog or ‘on the nose’ chit-chat without subtext. So you really can’t lose. If nothing else you can certainly benefit from the penmanship practice -- just like everyone else in our illegible-laundry-list world.
So with nothing at risk, you can play a little, digress, pontificate, puff up a metaphor until it pops all over your face like a piece of bubble gum. Then go back and salvage the good part, or just scratch it out and start all over again. No time limits, no word counts, no English teacher looking over your shoulder. This is your playground and you make the rules. What you’re really doing is tricking yourself., fooling your officious, finikity front brain into going out for coffee and leaving the rest of you alone. When you’re not trying ti impress anyone, even yourself, you get loose and once in a while something pretty impressive slips out. So, even if the scene dwindles or loses focus, even if you can’t finish (remember, you didn’t really ‘start’ it, either), you’re “streets ahead”, as Somerset Maugham liked to say, when you finally sit down to compose the scene in earnest. You have a god chunk of it done for you, and the very presence of those scribbled pages eases the solitary ordeal. You have a writing partner – and it’s you! -- from that afternoon in the bad-service restaurant or that long ferry trip.
This was brought home to me today, as I worked through just such a batch of chick-scratch pages, hastily scrawled while MV Eagle plied between Nantucket and Hyannis. By the time I was driving off the boat I felt like I’d been wasting my time – no real beginning to the scene, no real end … just a dialog that went off the rails. I almost tore the pages out of the book and chucked them. But I used that raw material this morning and wound up with something that turned out pretty well. It was a pleasant surprise, the kind of surprise which the comfort zone scribbled notes often engenders. The scene isn’t a masterpiece; but it turned into an interesting moment. It advanced the story and the characters a little farther than I thought it would, and even allowed me to crystallize the book’s theme without overstating it.
In short, a treat (At least for me).
In the interest of clarity and full disclosure, here are the two versions. My protagonist, Robert Mallory, is a struggling artist trying to squirm out from under the shadow of a famous father. He teaches school for a day job, and the headmaster, Raymond Tarses, has recently offered him a giant step up in the school’s hierarchy: Head of the Art Department. Robert stalled … because of course he expects to be a famous artists ANY SECOND, and be out of there cartoon-fast, leaving nothing behind but a puff of smoke and a Robert-shaped hole in the wall. He has good reason to feel that way on this particular morning: he’s meeting with the owner of a prominent downtown gallery in the afternoon.
So here’s what I scratched out on the boat:
“I’m still waiting,” Robert, he said, taking my arm by the sixth floor water fountain.
“I know sir,” I said. “Just give me a few more days.”
He raised one bushy eyebrow. “Something in the works?”
I leaned over for a gulp of water: tepid as usual. “Maybe,” I said, “I hope so.”
He smiled.”Well I’ll be honest and say I wish you well and at the same time I hope it comes to nothing and your most fervent hopes will be dashed.”
I brushed the water off my lip with my sleeve. “Thank you, sir.”
“I have built this faculty on the ruins of wrecked ambition,” he said. “But I have no regrets and neither do my teachers.”
I doubted that, but I didn’t want to argue with him.
“That’s good to hear,” I said, “But I’m late for class now and -- ”
“Go. Just remember – getting what you think you don’t want could be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
“And those grapes I can’t reach probably taste sour anyway.”
“No, they’re sweet, Robert. Believe me. I’ve had more of my share. But they go quickly (Or --:you gobble them quickly?) and soon you have nothing by the memory and the empty arbor (Or – the picked stem, stripped stem, scavenged stem?)
“I’ll take it.”
“Well of course you would but we rarely get to decide.”
So that was where I left it – going nowhere with that lame and ever-more tortured sour grapes conversation.
But this morning it all fell into place nicely:
I was free first period and I ran into Ray Tarses on my way to the teacher’s lounge.
“I’m still waiting, Robert,” he said.
Right -- I was supposed to have been mulling his promotion offer. I felt bad: it was an honor and a privilege even to be considered as head of Art Department at a venerated private school like Dalton. The prospect should have sparked a quick grateful acceptance. At the very least it deserved a period of thoughtful consideration; but the job hadn’t crossed my mind since Carla moved out.
No need to tell that to Tarses, though.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. Just give me a few more days.”
He raised one bushy eye-brow. “Something in the works?”
He didn’t miss much. We were standing by the water fountain. I leaned over for a gulp: tepid as usual. “Maybe,’ I said, straightening up. “I hope so.”
He smiled, patted my arm. “Well I’ll be honest and say I wish you well and at the same time fervently pray that this opportunity comes to nothing and all your most cherished hopes will be crushed.”
I brushed the water off my lip with my sleeve. “Uh thank you, sir. I think?”
“I’ve built this faculty on the ruins of wrecked ambition, Robert. But I have no regrets and neither do my teachers.”
I doubted that, but why argue? “That’s good to hear,” I offered instead.
He gripped my upper arm. “Just remember: not getting what you think you want and getting what you think you don’t could be the best thing that never happened to you.”
I had to laugh. “That would be a great bumper sticker, sir. If you had a really big car.”
He released my arm, and nodded as if I was serious. “Maybe I’ll get one made for our school buses. Plenty of room. And it would give people something to think about while the red lights are flashing.”
Apart from cleaning things up, the main change, the pleasant surprise, came at the end, when I re-worded Tarses’ little speech into something slightly more complex and cryptic. The image of waiting behind the school but while the red lights blink seems to sum up Robert’s position perfectly -– as least as he perceives it at this stage in the story. Those lines and that last image hopped into my mind like a cat into an open suitcase, but the suitcase was open on the bed in the first place because of the preliminary sketches I had almost thrown away the day before. Throwing unsatisfactory drafts away in a fit of pique is like refusing when a friend offers to buy you lunch: ungracious and ungrateful. Play with those drafts; keep them and use them. They’ll always wind up surprising you, imperfect as they may be.
As my mother-in-law’s Oklahoma grandmother always said: don’t let the perfect ruin the good.
Good advice in a imperfect world.