Monday, August 15, 2005

Getting Words on Paper.

It's a matter of style, I think, how you write and revise your work.

Word by word, not proceeding until you feel each word is perfect.

Or letting the words pour out in a rush, ignoring form or meaning, just wanting to swim in words.

In her excellent text on writing, Writing Fiction (5th ed.): A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway explores the way two writers with very different styles and temperment--Anne LaMott and Annie Dillard--approach the task of getting their words on paper.

LaMott is the author of her own book on writing, Bird by Bird, in which she shares this observation about first drafts: "Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it."

"The first draft is the child's draft," LaMott explains, "where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later."

When she was writing food reviews for California magazine, LaMott relates how she started writing just to get something on paper. "It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible."

What LaMott found over time is this: "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something--anything--down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft--you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft--you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy."

Annie Dillard, well known for sharing her insights into the writing process in her classic book, The Writing Life, describes her way of getting words down in a much different way.

"When you write, you lay out a line of words," Dillard writes. "The line of words is a miner's pick, a wood-carver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year."

Amazing, isn't it, that so much of this process of getting words on paper is filled with uncertainty... for both LaMott and Dillard?

You can go to sleep thinking what you've got on the page is gold, only to find the next morning that what you thought was gold was really fool's gold.

And knowledge of what you've got on the page only comes with time... as more words accumulate... and as you begin to discover what it is that you're actually writing about.

How you learn what it is that you need to write is different for each writer, as Dillard suggests when she describes these differences.

"The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses," Dillard writes, "to secure each sentence before building on it--is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf, any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop."


"The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses," Dillard counters, "is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph's role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work's ends."

Do Dillard and LaMott occupy opposing ends of the writing scale? Or are they merely re-affirming in different ways what Babel had to say about the writing process?

Remember Babel's introductory remarks, his admission that his own first drafts were terrible? (See Wordswimmer: Polishing Wood Into Ivory.)

His goal, like LaMott's, was to get something on paper. And then, like Dillard, he would go over each sentence again and again, until he found the words he wanted.

So...where does this leave us? What's the best way to get the words down on paper?

Burroway, in addition to sharing the above excerpts from LaMott's and Dillard's work, offers a comment from William Stafford, a remarkable poet and teacher, that may prove helpful as you begin your own work.

As a way to start writing, Stafford "advised his students to always write to their lowest standards."

Not their highest standards. Their lowest standards.

And Burroway's own advice?

"...remember: Writing is easy. Not writing is hard."

However you must, in whatever way works for you, get the words down.

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