Friday, May 4, 2012

The Psychosis of First Drafts

by Scott Rhoades

How many books have you read about writing? A few? A few dozen? Hundreds? How about writing classes? Seminars? Conferences? Writers group meetings? Blogs like this one?

What do all of these have in common?

Yes, they're about how to write, and some help you find kindred souls in a lonely profession or hobby. But there's another thing that they typically have in common. They are all about rules, about the proper way to do things. Most of us don't do anything in our writing lives without considering these rules. Is this a scene or a sequel? How is my grammar? Show, don't tell. Don't break point of view. You know them all.

We think of all these rules when writing anything, whether it's a story, a novel, a poem, a personal history, or a memo.

You are a human being, and that means you have a desire to create. You also have a desire to please your audience, and the rules are meant to keep your work pleasing and sensible to most people.

But you are not like most people. You happen to have been blessed (or cursed) with the talent and urge to tell stories, to dream while awake and record your dreams on paper, or a virtual form thereof. People who dream while awake like we do, and spend so much time developing those dreams, are missing something most people have: a firm barrier between conscious and subconscious. And that can mean only one thing.

We're weird.



So, this being a fundamental truth about writers, maybe we go about it the wrong way. We try to create a writing space that's calm and peaceful, lovely, where in our quiet solitude we can stare blissfully at a screen while our fingers tap out beautiful evidence of our genius in perfectly crafted sentences and scenes. We surround ourselves with books and posters and pictures that remind us of the rules of proper writing. We concentrate on form and structure. Maybe worst of all, as we write, we think about numbers: minutes, pages, word counts. We're writers, by crackers, word people, creative geniuses. So why are we thinking about numbers and rules and structure?

OK, we have to think about that stuff at some point, but when we're at our most creative, while we're knocking out that first draft, maybe that's all wrong.

Maybe we should embrace our craziness. Maybe we should acknowledge and accept the fact that we are mad scientists. Maybe we should stop thinking of our writing space as a peaceful enclave that shuts us off from the chaos of the outside world.

Instead, what if your cozy little writing nook becomes more like the mad scientist's lab, a crazy, wild place where you perform the most insane experiments with your words, where you forget the rules and follow your impulses, trying every weird idea that jumps into your twisted mind, even if--Utah forbid--it feels dangerous, unsafe, unpleasant. Unrighteous.

I just felt a shudder from the blog readership. All our training goes against that, whether in our real life or our creative life. No wonder we suffer from writer's block. We are so stifled by lists of rules and how-tos and propriety that we can't let our natural creativity flow. Creativity comes from the subconscious, the place of dreams, the part of your brain you'd rather not share with others because the stuff that comes out of there would shock your neighbors.

In his book, So, You're a Creative Genius...Now What?, Carl King says, "If there is one secret to making weak art, it is to ignore your dark side." (Italics King's.) He continues, "Embrace your mental malfunctions, your past pain, things you don't like--just draw from it all and go!"

 The first draft is where you let it all hang out. Where you experiment and put stuff from three test tubes into a beaker just to see what happens when you shake it. The first draft is the time to cackle maniacally and crank up all of those weird electrical zappers on the walls until lightning bolts fly across the room and your hair stands on end.

You can (and should) conform to the rules when you revise. If you don't, the editors and your crit group members will storm your castle with torches and pitchforks, but the rest of the villagers will ignore you. Your work has to meet certain expectations of what good writing is supposed to be or it will never be noticed outside your laboratory. But it doesn't have to do all of that when it first breaks free of your subconscious.

So free your mind and fill your space with reminders that your superior brain has no limits. Don't worry about order and beauty, in your workspace or your manuscript. Enjoy wildness and live that writing time without borders. Take down that sign on your door that says "Quiet. Writer at work." Replace it with one that says "Warning! Mad scientist's lab-o-ratory. Enter at your own peril!"

Don't be an artiste when pounding out that initial draft. Be a crazy genius who cannot be controlled. If you need a reminder, wear a lab coat. Stain it with blood, either the fake kind or the kind that spews from the bodies (at least in your fantasies) of those who dare to interrupt you while you fawn over the monster you are creating.

Embrace your madness. Revel in it. Play with it. Be Victor Frankenstein. Bring life to dead bodies because you can do it and nobody dares stop you. You can reign in your monster later and teach it manners, but all that matters in that first draft is that you give life to 26 little symbols in a way nobody else ever has.


Joseph Ramirez said...

So true. Freedom is the key to creativity, and any time that freedom is restricted (by ourselves or otherwise) creativity suffers.

E. said...

Holy cow! Way to release the demons! I am so tickled by the way you spit this out, and with such spirit balanced with eloquence. Thanks for the inspiration. ~Elaine

Virginia S Grenier said...

LOL, a fun hard look at what we do as writers. I really needed this today. Will be sharing as a Top Ten blog post in my newsletter this month for all writers to read.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comments. Glad you found it helpful.

I'm gearing up for an upcoming two-week writing binge and needed to give myself a pep talk. I also have friends who want to write but get so bogged down trying to write perfectly that they don't get far.

Julie Daines said...

When it comes to the "rules" of writing, I believe in Captain Barbosa's advice: "The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules."

There is a time and place for all of them. And occasionally, a time and place when you should chuck them out.

Lisa Campbell said...

Great post! You've inspired me to be less self-conscious as I work on my first draft. Why not? I won't be allowing anyone to read it in that state anyway. I have to say, my favorite line in this post was "Utah forbid." Beautiful. I think I'll be using that from now on. ;)

Scott said...

Thanks, Lisa. I'm glad it was helpful. I almost cut "Utah forbid" because I'm not real fond of villagers with torches and pitchforks showing up unannounced on my doorstep, interrupting my latest maniacal experiments. Good thing I didn't, huh?