Here’s what I tell my writing students: Write your first draft as fast as possible. Don’t spend time worrying about grammar, punctuation, or spelling. Don’t pause to find the right word or the right sentence. Don’t refine descriptions. Write without thinking. Write like a freight train, roaring down the track.
It’s good advice. I just wish I could follow it.
Here’s how I actually write my first drafts: Stare at the blank computer screen. Move things around on my desk in a futile attempt to organize it. Look at pictures of my granddaughter. Write an opening sentence. Delete it. Write a new opening sentence. Write two more sentences. Read them over and delete one sentence and one phrase. Check my email. Watch the blue jays forage on the lawn outside my window. Write another two sentences. Start the second paragraph. Delete the middle sentence of the first paragraph. Rewrite the description of the chimney at the end of the first paragraph. Write two more sentences of the second paragraph. And so on. You get the idea.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. But not much. My first draft process is excruciatingly slow. And whenever I’m working on the first draft of a novel, I complain about how hard and frustrating this part of the process is. I long for the future point when I’ll be able to work on the second and third drafts, when I’ll know where I’m heading and have a clear structure to work with. I know I’ll be so much happier.
This, of course, is nonsense. And by now I should know better. Every time I’m in the middle of the later drafts of a novel I find myself yearning for the freedom and soaring creativity of first draft writing. And vice versa.
Part of this is probably just human nature – the “grass is always greener” syndrome. But something else is going on, I think: the bilateral nature of writing. First draft work relies heavily on creativity and intuition, while later drafts lean on editorial and critical thinking. A writer needs to be skilled in both approaches in order to write a satisfying novel. But their nature and the experience of working in these two modes is quite different. So it’s easy, when immersed in creative mode, to imagine that the editorial mode is easier and more enjoyable. And when struggling in that mode, it’s tempting for the writer to look over her shoulder and romanticize the freedom and open-endedness of first draft writing.
Or maybe it’s just my contrary nature. But it does sometimes seem as if – no matter where I am in the process – I’m always grumbling.