Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Writing, Rewriting, and Further Rewriting

I found these thoughts on writing from Jane Anne Staw particularly helpful. I am writing a book and love the process of layering – starting with a draft and then adding complexity and depth with each subsequent rewrite. It’s really an act of faith since most people, as Anne Lamott puts it, write “shitty first drafts.” A writer has to set aside the negative voices and keep on writing until the nuggets outshine the clunkers. Here’s Part 2 of Staw's essay:

“Understanding that writing is a process and not a product also helps quell the critics.

When I was in college, I thought that every word, every sentence, every paragraph I wrote had to be exquisite before I could move on to the next word or sentence or paragraph. With this standard of perfection, it took me weeks and weeks to finish each and every writing assignment. Even worse, since I was a far from perfect writer—as we all are—I created an open season for the critics.

It took me many years to understand that the actual writing takes place in stages, each stage requiring a different focus and concentration from the others. During the first stage, the writer is responsible only for generating material. Whether this material may be ideas for an essay, incidents for a story, or the images for a poem, the only task of the writer at this initial stage is to generate raw material. Think of it as creating a gold mine for yourself. Worry about punctuation, word choice, syntax come much, much later. Even structure and development can be put off while you are creating the ore for your future project.

It is only once writers have created a gold mine, that they proceed to the next phase, which involves cutting and pasting in order to create structure or logic for what they have written so far. If it’s a story, the writer begins thinking about plot. If it’s a poem, the poet starts to consider how the images might appear on the page. If it’s an essay or argument, the essayist considers the logic of the piece. The writer is still not responsible for the full development of any one idea or image or scene. And certainly not for spelling and grammar. Not at all!

During the third stage of the writing, you look over what is on the page and ask, Which of my ideas or moments or images need more development. Does this idea feel too flimsy? If it does, what can I do to bolster it? Does this scene seem trivial? What can I do to strengthen it? Does this stanza seem too thin? How can I create more density?

It is only now, once you have revised the piece for logic and development, that the fourth phase of the writing begins: refining syntax and taking a look at word choice. Are too many of my sentences long and rambling? Is there not enough variety in my syntax? Can I find a more precise word? These are all efforts that affect the surface of the piece, putting the writer’s muscle to polishing and refining. If we engage in this refining too early, we risk skating along the surface of whatever we are writing, never penetrating to the subterranean pockets where the deepest ideas, images or stories reside.

The last phase of the writing process involves copy editing—reading over what you have written to check that all the I’d are dotted; that you have no dangling modifiers or run on sentences.

It’s easy to put off the critics when you approach writing as consisting of a series of stages. “I’m not ready to copy edit yet,” you can say. “Come back in a week or two.” Or, “I know this idea deserves more development, but I’m not responsible for development yet. I promise I’ll get to that by next week.”

Grandiose thinking is another way to sabotage yourself. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be grandiose for your thinking to create a mine field as you write. Thinking too far ahead, to where you want to be in a week or a month; or to when you want to finish your essay or your book, is thinking too big. Thinking about the whole book when you are beginning the first chapter or the entire essay when you are putting your toe in the first paragraph are also ways of thinking too big. So is wondering what kind of advance you might receive.

Thinking too large takes you off course, and stirs up all those anxieties that help make your writing world unsafe: Will I be able to finish this story? Will I be able to convince my reader of my argument? Will my last lines provide the catharsis the reader expects from a poem? Will this novel be good enough to attract a publisher? Will I receive good reviews? Am I up to the task? How will I be able to weave together all the characters and themes and incidents into a coherent novel? How will I be able to sustain this mood for twenty pages?

And stirring up our anxieties brings us right back to where we began: with the barrage of critics shooting criticisms at us as we write. To stop the bullets from strafing us, we need to learn to think small. If you are writing a novel or a book of nonfiction, don’t get ahead of yourself with worry about the last chapter. And if you find yourself thinking about the Pulitzer, simply bring yourself back to the chapter or the scene you are currently writing. If it’s a poem you are working on, return to the image you have just created or focus on a particular word. If it’s an essay or a story, lead yourself back to the paragraph or the sentence you are engaged with fashioning. By reminding yourself to think small, you will allow yourself to remain calm and focused upon what you are writing at the moment. And you will be able to witness your words blossoming fully on the page.

To thrive as writers, we need to fashion for ourselves the sort of lasting peace that allows us to write within the safety of our very personal relationship with our writing. It is a relationship bathed in understanding and compassion, a relationship that we nurture by negotiating with our critics, understanding that writing is a process, not a product, envisioning an ideal and receptive audience and thinking small. Once this peace is in place for a while, you will see flowers blooming where devastation once laid waste to the territory of the blank page.”

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