I finished the first draft of a novel the other day. First drafts are usually unsettling for me. I read them over and have mixed feelings about them—parts I like, parts I don’t like. When I try to arrive at an opinion of the overall piece, I fail. A friend of mine expressed that situation very well several years ago. “When I’m writing a piece,” he said, “I feel it’s the greatest thing in the world. When I read it over later I think it’s a piece of crap.”
I suppose that’s the reason for first drafts, and second and third. Nothing’s written in stone. It can all be changed as needed. The trick is to find out exactly what’s needed. Another friend spoke of writing for newspapers, something of which she has done a great deal. In that line of work, she said, one edits as one goes along. There is no time for drafts. In a way I have come to write like that, editing, changing the text as I go—as I’m doing in writing this piece. When I finish the piece, it is pretty much in final form. A read-over provides for some changes and that’s it—the piece is done. That’s the way I’ve come to write for other longer pieces as well. Still, I find that if I let a piece I’ve written sit a while and then pick it up again, I inevitably find ways it should be changed, ways to improve it. That piece I’ve written in that “newspaper” style is a first draft.
Why is that? Good question. Perhaps it goes back to the philosophy of a poem never being finished but only being “abandoned.” Once one goes back to it, rescues it from its “finished” state and reworks it, it is no longer the same and becomes “finished” in its new form. There are both advantages and dangers in that. Obviously, it would be possible to never “finish” any piece of work. One’s file would bulge with unfinished work. Either that, or with only one piece that never moves beyond the working stage.
Another danger is how and what gets changed. It’s possible to improve a piece by change; it’s also possible to ruin it. It’s possible to simply overwork a piece, destroy its freshness and spontaneity. Yet, I have read of prominent authors that have exhibited first drafts of their work, pages that are scratched over and changed to the point of the original document being unrecognizable.
The answer, I feel, lies somewhere in the middle of all these do’s and don’t’s. And somewhere in the midst of that lies the secret to good writing. There are advantages in letting a piece age—not only on the paper but in one’s mind. Perhaps part of the process is simply the fact that I, when I am looking over my first draft, am not really the same person as I was when I wrote it. I have changed, hopefully for the better, and can now look at the piece with a fresh viewpoint, one that will notice errors and correct them, that can add a new slant that gives more meaning to the piece of writing and, at the same time resists change for change’s sake.
At ant rate, I will post this on the blog today. It is finished for the present. I’ll have to let the piece sit for a while and look at it again after several weeks or longer. I’m sure I will want to change it then.