Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing Away the Idea of Instant Perfection

Even my favorite bobcat in the entire world, Robert de Fargo, gets tired 
of hearing me drone on and on about my writing insecurities.

"Practice makes perfect, but nobody's perfect, so why practice?"
George Carlin

"Practice, practice makes perfect.  Perfect is a fault and fault lines change..."
R.E.M. (from I Believe)

When I was a kid I believed a writer sitting down and wrote, in one sitting, exactly the words I was reading.  A book was such a perfect thing, the words each just so and working so effortlessly together, that of course the process of creating such a written work must be just as effortless.  Writing, to my mind, must be as simple and as weightless a thing as breathing.

My first attempts at writing a book showed some flaws in this thinking but, then again, I wasn't a real writer then, was I?  I was just a kid.  Surely there must be some all-but-magical rite of initiation a real writer went through to be given the power of producing exquisite prose with each stroke of his fountain pen.

It wasn't until many years later that I found Anne Lamott's essential guide for writers, Bird by Bird.  One of the Great Truths of Writing she provides there is to give yourself permission to write what she refers to as "$h*††¥ first drafts".  Here's a quote from the book:

"Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of sh*tty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her."
I have come to realize that writing is about 10% writing and 90% re-writing, revising, editing and re-writing some more.  Unfortunately, I find it very easy to forget to give myself permission to write $h*††¥ drafts at every stage of that re-writing process, wherever it's necessary.  Instead, lately, I've spent weeks staring at my opening paragraphs with a mixture of self-loathing, fear, and immobilizing panic that has not only stifled any thoughts of creativity but has dug deep into my self-confidence about being able to write.

Fun, huh?

To make matters in my head worse, I keep reading blog entries by successful authors who have new books coming out -- a dream that seems to only get further and further out of my reach.  (Thank God for Kate Dicamillo's Facebook page where she admits to the same kind of fears and insecurities I have.  Considering she is someone whose prose seems so effortlessly mixed with poetry, I have to admit to a quiet sense of relief every time I read one of her posts.)

Today on the bus I decided to give up on the ideal of opening paragraph perfection to the point of skipping over them altogether.  I moved straight on to Page Two and gave it a hyper-critical eye.  And decided it wasn't nearly as bad as I had thought it was.  It's still in need of extensive re-writes, but it's not unsalvageable, utter garbage.

That's a start.

-- Tom