Feb 25

Want to Be a Brilliant Writer?

I have the answer.

Brilliance is revision and revision is brilliance.

Brilliance doesn't come in the first draft. Brilliance is accumulated over drafts.

Writers are very lucky because we can take our first drafts and over time develop and craft them. A first draft is like Adam's rib. We add the muscle, nerves, flesh, hair, and breath of life. Editors, publishers, and fellow writers help us polish the work until it shines and communicates perfectly, and keep us from making public our inevitable misjudgements and mistakes. That's why your favorite writers dazzle you. How do they do it? Revision. That's why years pass between their books.

We all want to write brilliant first drafts and be done with it. That's like wanting to climb Everest right this minute without a base camp or a team, or have a baby right now without a pregnancy. That'd be brilliant, but it's unlikely. Don't pressure yourself with the belief that you can or should write brilliantly immediately and all by yourself all the time--that you must be superhuman. That will be unproductive. Revision is very human. The humanity which soaks into the work through revision is what makes it brilliant.

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Nov 17

Night of Scribing Recklessly

"I'm NaNo," I told the librarian. It was 4:30 p.m. on the National Novel Writing Month's ("NaNo" for short) Evening of Scribing Recklessly, which had started at 2. About 30 fiction writers were packed into the library's conference room, including teens and two children, with not a single seat open. Wedged into a corner I used a chair as a desk. Junk food was available and pizzas brought in. I was surprised that talking and banter were allowed ("Hey, anybody, what's a good family name to put on a mausoleum?").

After the library officially closed at 5 we NaNos were "locked in" (one could leave the library but not re-enter). Until 9:00 p.m. we could sit anywhere in the library and I set up near the front window and then moved back into the conference room for the final hour. I missed some of the "get up and stretch" moments and the raffle that repaid the leaders for their outlay on food. Participated in some five-minute "timed writes" during which everyone wrote as quickly and as much as they could.

I wrote 7,252 words this evening so my novel draft is at 24,111, almost half of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words during the month of November -- and there is less than half the month left! One should be writing about 1,700 words daily (about 75-90 minutes' worth) or, alternatively, attending organized write-ins all over the city to write in concentrated blocks of usually three hours. The seven-hour Night of Scribing Recklessly is one-tiime event. I just had to be there.

I value the pressurized and communal NaNo novel-writing experience, although the draft so far lacks shape and like most NaNos I have no idea what might end up in the book. NaNos (thousands, nationwide) are drafting, writing for quantity, bypassing our inner critics -- for now. We update our word counts on the National Novel-Writing Month website, nanowrimo.org. It's nonprofit and free and open to all. And, contrary to what I had imagined, it's not crazy: The discipline is sobering and sane.
Jul 21

What Your Cr. Wrt. Prof. is Thinking

24 February 2009

-Wish I'd written that.
-This is freaking amazing.
-I just won't tell the class that no experienced writer would ever even TRY to write four essays (or a portfolio of poems) in 16 weeks.
-Man, the difference between the first draft and the third, like night and day!
-You're showing your depths and I really like that.
-I bow to your greater experience.
-I'm really sorry that you had to suffer _________. But it may help to write about it.
-LOL
-I know of something you've just got to read!
-I know where this might be published!
Jun 27

Tally for 2008

Completed: About 23 poems. Drafted This Year: 18 poems, 0 essays. Submitted: 14 poems. Rejected: 11 poems. Poetry Readings: 2; Prose Readings: 1; Anthologies Appeared In: 1. Contests Entered: 2; Prizes Won: 0. Workshops/Seminars Attended: 18. Poetry Readings Attended: 9; Submissions of Book Manuscript: 2; Rejections of Book Manuscript: 1. New Books Purchased: About 20. New Friends Made: 15 to 20 (a really great year). Friends Self-Publishing First Books: 6; Friends Publishing First Books: 5; Friends Publishing Second Books: 1; Friends Making a Living at Writing: 1. I don't make a living. However, as you can see, my life is fabulously rich.
Apr 25

The Almost-Finished Poem

I have this little paradise of almost-finished poems: a file called "Completed Poems - Almost."

When I have a block of time, preferably about six to ten days, I draft poems like crazy, writing big, big, long, sloppy, inclusive first drafts. I let it all hang out. I run the idea into the ground. These drafts are raw material. I mark each of them "Draft 1" and print them out. They go together in an envelope marked with the approximate date of composition (such as "Fall 2007").

When there's another spot of time (at least six months later) I delete and toss the hopeless drafts. Those that still stand are so long 'n' sloppy I can easily refine them simply by cutting. If after that I still care, I print these drafts out, mark them "Draft 2," and then the intensive crafting work begins.

When a poem is almost finished -- when it's whole except for, say, that one nagging word, or one line, or a closing line -- it is promoted to the file "Completed Poems - Almost."

I visit this file with pleasant anticipation, when I have time, usually every six months or so. Often I can immediately see what the unfinished poem needs, supply it, and promote it to "Completed Poems." They get printed and put in a binder, marked "New Poems," and then I toss the drafts.

A really sticky "almost-poem" I'll read aloud. My sense of embarrassment, boredom, or distaste tells me exactly where to apply my crafting efforts -- or whether any further efforts will be in vain.

Some drafts do hard time in that "Almost" file. But I like that file even better than "Completed Poems." A completed poem is satisfying, but the adventure of making it, the romance, the wild guesses, the risks, the faith, the Nikola-Tesla-like experimentation, the race to the finish, that chance that this poem will be really, really great -- is so OVER.
Feb 10

Mental Monsters - Vanquished

How creative is the art of worrying! A largely baseless concern was filling up every corner of my mind, like poison gas, with worry and fictive worst-case scenarios, making me feel both jittery and paralyzed. My options at these times are 1) petition God, the Tarot, horoscopes or therapists for answers and peace, 2) take a pill, 3) make myself write the Absolute Truth about the concern. Often the resulting draft is an accumulation of put-downs, childish rage, obscenities and rudeness, and if it has potential I try pounding it into shape. If it's a poem I may impose a form on it. I took one such draft and turned it into four-line stanzas of two couplets each, and every stanza had to mention the name "Richard" (a pseudonym for the real name) or a derivative thereof (such as "Keith Richards"). This took all evening. Now that it's polished and disciplined, I lick my chops with delight when I read it.

Baseless worry and catastrophizing are byproducts of a creative mind, so artists often suffer from these mental monsters, which are made up of backed-up, souring creativity. If such a thing is bothering you, write the absolute Truth about it.  No one has to see it. Or you may want everyone to see it.

Feb 06

How 'Me' Can I Be?

Surprise: I'm writing less carefully these days. Not with less attention to grammar and spelling, not that. But I'm just letting it spill. Or letting it flow. I'm not taking the time to refine, refine, refine -- and then get word from an editor that she/he has a few suggestions (and remember, in my experience, editors' suggestions have 90 percent of the time been good ones. Start out as a journalist; that'll take the prima donna outta you). What's more important, I'm also asking myself -- more writing getting out, or less writing being sifted, re-sifted, shifted, pulled apart, stitched together? What about those whole days spent on one word or phrase? Whole weeks spent on one line? Was I being great-souled, or was I being crazy?

Have I been lied to? What is this thing about "perfection"? Are all great pieces of writing sweated over? I know one that isn't, the American masterpiece Moby-Dick. I mean, that's a breathtaking book. And yet somewhere in its depths author Melville put forth what I thought an unforgettable cry:

"This whole book is but a draft—nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"
Jan 22

Go Easy On Yourself

I've been fiercely disciplined lately. I'd love to go easy on myself today. So:

I will think highly of myself and my accomplishments. In fact I will list them.

I will finish a piece or leave it unfinished, as I please.

I won't wish I were another writer. I'm who I am, and I'm where I'm at. World, you can just deal with it.

I won't wish I had been born with an Anglo surname. I won't notice that the new issue of Natural Bridge, #17, features six "emerging writers" from around the U.S. Their surnames are: Boyle, Garrett, Fenton, Williams, Kohler, and Merrifield. (This issue was edited by John Dalton, who is a nice guy.)

Just for today, I'll puke up a draft of something new, maybe even something totally "out there," without caring how good it is and where I will publish it and how people may shun me when it's published. I may write as badly as I want, or as badly as I can. (Fun.) How about a poem about a dragon and a princess...