“It is like this: there are wonderfully gifted people who write a little piece and then write it over and over again to make it perfect, - absolutely, flawlessly perfect, a gem. But these people only emit about a pearl a year, or in five years. And that is because of the grind, the polishing, i.e., the fear that the little literary pearl will not be perfect and unassailable. But this is all a loss of time and a pity. For in them there is a fountain of exuberant life and poetry and literature and imagination but it cannot get out because they are so anxiously busy polishing the gem.”—Brenda Ueland
I’ve known a few writers over the years who have spent months writing and rewriting chapter one and never getting any further. They are determined to ‘polish’ this chapter before moving on to the next, certain that if they ‘just get it right’ they won’t have to come back and change it. They are sure they can avoid having to edit this way.
There are several pitfalls to this approach. One is, as I mentioned last week, constant editing is a form of procrastination. What Brenda Ueland didn’t say in today's quote is that constant editing very often dulls the spark, the life of a scene, almost as if it wears the finish off. It becomes grammatically perfect, but it loses immediacy and sparkle.
There are lots of quotes out there about this subject, and they all seem to agree – write the first draft without stopping to edit. The “don’t look down” draft. The "discovery" draft.
Just fly thru the pages as fast as the Muse can take you. If you hit a snag, a scene where you don’t know what should happen, skip it and continue with the next chapter as if you already figured it out. Chances are the Muse does have it figured out and All Is Revealed as you continue to write. An outline is no guarantee you won’t hit a snag, or have to go back and add something in, or change a detail to match something that comes up toward the end. If a gun is fired in the last chapter, you have a chance to go back and put it on the mantle in the first chapter. (Bonus points to anyone who can provide the quote and attribution I’m referring to).
Once you have the story on the page and it’s starting to gel, that’s the time to edit. Then go back and fine tune nuances, choose details to highlight the tone or theme or character. Like an artist who first sketches the portrait, then blocks in the colors, then adds the delicate shading that brings the portrait to life.
Unless you’re writing a dissertation or thesis, writing is messy. And, I would argue, even a dissertation or thesis will have its messy stage before it’s ready to go to committee.
“Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived…Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation… Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.” –Anne Lamott