Sunday, August 22, 2010

Just Write It!

Here’s an item I clipped and saved from the Spring 2000 Authors Guild Bulletin:
“I don’t like gorgeous writing,” novelist Kent Haruf told Dinitia Smith of The New York Times. Haruf, who lives in Murphysboro, Ill., is the author of Plainsong, winner of the National Book Award for fiction.

Haruf said he wrote the first draft of the novel with a wool stocking cap pulled down over his eyes. According to Smith, “He would sit typing blindly in the unheated basement of his unpretentious white frame house in this sleepy town trying to visualize the high, dry Colorado plains of his childhood.”

Haruf said he pulled the cap over his eyes because “I was trying not to be analytical, to get in touch with the intuitive, the visual, the spontaneous, without any attention to detail and syntax.

“It takes away the terror when you’re blind and you can’t go back and rewrite a sentence,” he said. “It calls for storytelling, not polishing.”
I wouldn’t be able to write with a cap pulled down over my eyes. More than likely, my fingers would get off of home-row and I’d end up with Mpe od yjr yo,r gpt s;; hppf ,rm yp …

Experience has taught me, however, that Haruf’s approach -- just write it; save the rewriting and polishing for later -- is the only way to write a novel. As I made the transition from writing nonfiction to trying my hand at a novel, I wasted beaucoup time agonizing over my first chapter. I can’t tell you how many rewrites I did of that one chapter. And none of them, of course, was satisfactory.

Finally I threw up my hands, figuratively speaking, and just went on writing the rest of the book. And by the time I reached the end of Book 1 of my WATERSPELL trilogy, I was a different writer. The process of writing fiction had changed me in countless ways. I was far more in touch with “the intuitive, the visual, the spontaneous” than I had been as a working journalist and a writer of nonfiction.

Book 2 came a little easier as I applied the lessons I had learned. I still tended to overwrite, but my style in Book 2 is looser, freer, more confident -- more spontaneous.

But it’s in Book 3 that I seem to have hit my stride. From late 2009 into early 2010, my fingers just flew over the keyboard as I wrote the first draft of that final installment of my epic. I remember waking up one Sunday morning with the whole story clear in my mind, sitting down at the keyboard, and tapping away at a blistering pace for day after day, then week after week, barely pausing until I had transferred the story from my head to the computer.

Write It, Then Let It Sit


The draft had to sit for months while I made a living -- such a pesky necessity it is, having to make a living. But this month I have finally been able to get back to it, and reading what I wrote all those months ago is like reading someone else’s writing.

I do not remember writing the scenes I am now reading. Cross my heart and hope to die, it’s the truth.

As I read what I wrote, I have no idea what’s going to happen next -- I’m surprised by each twist and turn. The whole story seems to have flowed out my mind, through my fingertips, onto the page, and left hardly a trace of itself in my memory. I remember the long, intense hours I spent bringing the draft into being. But the contents of the draft, I had forgotten.

Happily, I am not displeased with what I’m reading now. My mind must have been hitting on all cylinders during that two- or three-month period of feverish writing. I rather neatly tied up loose ends from Books 1 and 2, I crafted satisfactory explanations, I untangled the knots that remained after the first two installments.

What a relief to pick up the draft of Book 3 and realize I have nearly pulled it off! This trilogy is almost finished.

Oh, I still have many pages to write, including a third narrative lay (poem) that will be a sort of prequel to the poems in Books 1 and 2 that contain hidden clues. Those two poems came to me quite easily and naturally (I wrote about the experience here).

So far, the third poem hasn’t presented itself to my conscious mind. But I trust that my subconscious will spit it out at some point. I just have to be ready to write it down when it comes (hence all the notepads everywhere).

What I have learned from the years-long task of writing my trilogy is that the writing must come first. Rewriting and polishing have no place in the early creative stages of telling a story. Just write it!

Then, later, when you can look at the draft objectively, when you can see it as though somebody else wrote it -- that’s the time for analyzing, rewriting, and refining.

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