A first draft is a place to explore ideas, images, and premonitions. Later, you can go back to revision, revise, rewrite. Draft to discover. Craft to design.
Here’s Tennessee Williams’ take on first drafts:
I believe that the way to write a good play is to convince yourself that it is easy to do -- then go ahead and do it.
Don't maul, don't suffer, don't groan—till the first draft is finished.
Then Calvary—but not till then.
Doubt -- and be lost -- until the first draft is finished.
Trip the Fear Wire.
But we're wired to fear the unknown. That according to Jonathan Fields' review in his book Uncertainty of Daniel Ellsberg's 1961 study of risk and uncertainty. When faced with uncertainty, Fields notes that the brain's fear and anxiety center — the amygdala — "lights up, triggering a cascade of physiological and psychological events." How do we trip that wire?
Fields goes on to review more current research by Stefan T. Trautman and team that shows a telling variable: Eliminate the element of being judged, and study participants are more likely to take risks.
So, when writing first drafts, leave the editor at home and bring along your Drafting Buddy — you know, the happy-go-lucky pal who lets you go where you want to go and explore. My Drafting Buddy is the equivalent of my inner Labrador.
But I also put in a few safety measures, the equivalents of a map and water supplies, just in case.
My first safety measures for “getting lost” are setting an intention and moving with my imagination on a yoga mat. I feel less inhibited if I close my eyes, move my body, and explore my imagination before sitting before a blank screen. Doing so lets me wander safely within the bounds of time, deadlines, and energy. If I know at least the subject or angle or topic or question I intend to write into, then I have a variety of ways to “trick” my imagination into coming out to play so I can explore with more facility.
This process works for me. And something like it works for numerous other creatives.
So once you’ve set a writing intention (e.g., "I intend to write into..." or raise a question such as, "Where is this scene taking me?"), you can draft and not know where you’re going. You might forget everything you think you know about your subject, story, or image. Begin with fewer preconceptions, and you trust your wits to see you through.
This kind of not-knowing brings more joy than fret. Susan Orlean (Rin Tin Tin, The Orchid Thief) said at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival a few years ago that she knows when she’s onto a hot topic when in the first draft she has more questions than answers.
Begin with the concrete.
If writing a first sentence daunts you, start with the concrete. A scene. An image. Maybe it’s one that haunts you, such as a woman pacing a room. Describe the red chiffon dress with an orange leather belt she wears or the fresh scratch on the side of her cheek. See where describing that image’s surfaces in detail takes you.
Another similar way to begin is by describing a character’s quirky action. For example, a story draft might start with “Alison reads dictionaries backwards. She tries to read a letter’s worth of words a week. This afternoon, she’s on ‘u.’ Umbilical.”
If as a writer you’re intrigued enough, you’ll ask yourself about your own character, “Why does she read dictionaries backwards? Why this discipline? Why is she reading the definition of umbilical when this story starts?”
The same process works when writing nonfiction. If I’m writing into my mother, I might begin a personal essay with, “When I was ten, my mother tried out belly dancing.” Now, I have no idea why at that time, in 1975, she came home with finger cymbals, a fringed purple and gold outfit, and a record with music reminiscent of Sinbad the Sailor, but I’m sure if I trusted my wits enough to recall such remote memories that some answers would avail themselves.
If not, then this memory likely would lead to other related memories, and soon after writing to discover for two or three hours, I would be deep into some fresh territory.
Let the writing beguile your imagination, and the writing might pique readers’ curiosity, too.
Starting with details and images can anchor your imagination (and your potential readers’ imaginations) in this imagined physical world. Writing description stimulates the brain’s more intuitive visual cortex and parietal lobe, so your drafting sort of often bypasses the blah-blah-blah path - the more abstract and analytical voice that wants to figure things out and explain them away for writer and reader.
Another way to start your story, essay, or poem concretely is in the middle of a conversation. Dialogue creates immediacy in your imagination and can help you hear the piece’s voices. Follow where remembering or creating the conversation leads you. “What’s the story with your obsession with red pansies?” Benny asked his sister-in-law. Indeed, you the writer say to yourself. What is her obsession with pansies? Who is Benny? You won’t know until you draft some more.
Sometimes writers start with a tango of topics. A novelist might start with an itch to explore the relationship between botany and desire. An essayist may wonder how myths of goats relate to notions of masculinity. A poet might set out to see in a series of couplets how the idea of origins and eggs relate. Characters, situations, anecdotes, and images—all the concrete aspects of writing imaginatively—become intuitive ways to explore these ideas.
Heed your breath.
As you draft, check in with your breath. Most of us hold our breath when we write. Holding the breath deliberately is an advanced yoga practice, but doing so unconsciously can create tension in our bodies and induce unconscious anxiety. Writing while periodically observing your breath, on the other hand, helps you write with a bit more ease (although it won’t make writing easy).
Your slow exhalations dissipate the chatter while you write, and breath awareness reminds you, too, that your source of drafting encompasses other parts of your body besides your head.
You release physical tension so you can be open to imaginative tension. So, if you feel compelled, let yourself detour. As in “un-tour.”
Listen to a word’s sound and let it rebound throughout your inner ear until by association another word suggests another path of words to take.
Let’s say you’re writing about a time when you picked apples. The word apple in the first line of poetry or the first scene of a story might tickle the word garden or Eden or Snow White. Recurring images and sounds not only thread a series of lines or scenes together. An impression of a word—its connotation, its music—may prompt a memory, an analogy to a film or anecdote, another word, image, or metaphor.
When we let our inner ear and eye follow these feathery associations, we let each word and sentence guide the next word and sentence. The piece’s inner logic of interrelated words guides you as much as the outer logic of ideas and plot.
I’m not suggesting a random, disjointed stream-of-consciousness. Instead, you follow a thread and follow your breath and at some point, any point, an image or word may beckon you to digress.
Keith Abbott describes his writing process as a jazz improvisation: In the moment of writing itself, you let the music play you. Either way, you’ll have perhaps a new, even richer story to tell. Read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things or a novel by Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, or Tom Robbins to sense how prose’s current can charge fiction.
But cut yourself a little slack, because not all sounds are musical and not all ideas are worth keeping and sharing, just as not all food is piquant. Permit yourself to write crap. Pull out the leftovers, old worn-out drafts from ten years ago, if reworking them gives your imagination something palpable to sink its teeth into.
Even if what you start to write sounds as if you’ve been writing the same thing for years, write it. Some writers have only one idea their whole life, on which each novel or set of poems they publish simply plays a variation.
If you insist on drafting only when you feel each word must be recherché to avoid your words tasting like a rechauffé, then you might actually starve your muse. You’ll have time later to clean up the mess—the excesses, the overwriting, the creative indulgences, the melodrama—that you made. For now, enjoy the trek. Drafting, like cooking, can be messy.
To let yourself get lost while drafting is to go blind. It’s to be content at times with being in the dark where seeds germinate.
Write in the dark.
Writer Kent Haruf pulls the wool over his eyes—literally a wool cap—when he dives into his first drafts so he won’t be worried about hitting the right keys on his keyboard. He explains in the essay “To See Your Story Clearly, Start by Pulling the Wool Over Your Eyes” that he writes sections of stories loosely to quell his analytical mind and “to stay in touch with subliminal, subconscious impulses and to get the story down in some spontaneous way.”
It can work. I’ve tried it. My imagination’s engine, with this newfound freedom, happily chugs along on and off the track. This practice works best, though, if you can type comfortably (although I’ve had writers try it hand writing in their notebooks too). You might close your eyes or turn out the lights, clarify an intention that is no more specific than to receive whatever your intuition has to give you and, with your eyes still closed, let go and write in the dark.
When you regularly stoke your intuition as an ally, uncertainty and ambiguity are not so frightening. At least during the first draft. Then, as Williams suggests, you can groan and maul and suffer. And as Chopin suggests, then you can apologize for the trouble your curious writing will get you into.
Until then, happy sauntering.
How do you wander?
I've offered a few concrete tips, but I'd love to hear from some of you scholars and writers as to how you let yourself wander when you need to.
See you in the woods,
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