Writing is neither quick nor easy. Often, so elusive are the ideas and then the words to attach to them, that I may as well be divining for water. For the better part of today, I have been laboring on Day 15’s writing challenge. I just haven’t written anything. When an idea worth exploring comes my way, I hesitate to commit it to the blank screen in front of me, because its potential might be diminished by an ill-chosen word or a clumsy sentence. My reluctance amuses me, knowing I will begin to revise this very post, rework its sentences, reshape it, remove imprecise words, perhaps entirely rewrite it, shortly after I press “publish.” Because the first draft is never any good; a veritable struggle, perhaps this post should be entitled, “My Rewriting Style.”
Until I encountered a 1977 interview she gave for the Paris Review, I presumed writing came easily to iconic writer, Joan Didion. It simply never occurred to me that she might struggle with the technicalities of getting started:
What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.
The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.
Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities. Unless you’re Henry James.”
But putting words on paper we must. You’re only stuck with that first draft if you don’t do anything with it. Writing and rewriting is where we find creativity, unbound by time, a fusion of labor and craft. As Lewis Hyde posits in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World :
Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify … writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.
Writing is invention: revision and reinvention too. While it is not what I do for a living, it is essential to my life. The revision of paragraphs is time well spent, savored not necessarily scheduled, but daily. The best part is that spent very early in the morning or late at night, weighing words from a first draft, deleting them or rearranging them in ways that will illuminate for me who and how I am, what lies in front of me, what holds me back, what’s hidden beneath the surface.
I discovered writer, Anne Lamotte, a few years before my daughter was born, some time before the internet, and long before I bumped into blogging. I’m reminded this evening of advice she gave in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid.
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.