That’s not a reference to safe sex (at least, I don’t think it is. How am I supposed to know what the kids are calling it these days?). It’s a callback to several previous posts on this blog where I have argued that you should put your work aside for a couple of months before starting the polish draft. And also that you should never send out first drafts – not even first drafts of rewrites.
I don’t know about anyone else but when I get to the end of a project, I am worn out to the point of hating myself and everything I have wrought. The elated sense of infallibility that started with the blank page and drove my heel through 75% of the writing process first flagged and has now completely evaporated. What I’m left with as my story slouches toward the last page to be born is a sense of disaffection that is stunning in both its breadth and intensity.
In four words: I hate my book.
And why shouldn’t I? What has held my nose to the grindstone for the past six months? What have I engineered every day around? What has leached my creativity every damn day until I am bled white? And what didn’t manage to turn out as perfectly as I had imagined it when I started?
My book. My goddamn book.
I’ve mentioned before that I dropped out of college and drove around the country to write my first novel. What I haven’t talked about is the arduousness of that project. When I started out, I was so emboldened by knowing exactly what kind of story I was going to write that I bravely pooh-poohed all the people who warned me about how hard it was to write long form fiction. But I found out in the long run. I found out the hard way.
This was in the pre-word processor days when my electric Smith & Corona with the auto-correct ribbon was considered the height of technological advancement. I have a clear memory of standing in an empty apartment (I never bothered to furnish the places I lived when I was on my American journey because I wasn’t going to be there for long) standing over a matrix of printed pages, each stack in the array representing one chapter, as I began the final run on the first complete draft of that first novel. It was the only way for me to “see” the whole story all at once.
I clearly remember feeling worn out and spent. I remember thinking, “This piece of crap has eaten up half a year and now I’m stuck in New Orleans, broke and alone, and I have nothing to show for it.” I quite literally thought about burning the whole mess in protest. Instead, I quit my job as a carpenter’s assistant (I’ll devote several chapters to the life of a middleclass college boy working in the blue collar trades in my never-to-be-written autobiography), packed the novel away in the box the typewriter paper had come in, and drove to my parent’s house in Virginia. I didn’t even think about that festering pile of diseased pages for the next few months except to offer up curses to the thing that had ruined my life. Although, sometimes, I would lie awake at night cruising over all the bad parts in my head, dwelling on every stinking line that rang false, every shallow allusion, every character that went about as deep as the paper he was drawn on.
Eventually, I returned to Austin and kicked around for a few more months until I was psychically free of that draft, until it was a mistake I had made a while ago instead of something done recently that was still a fresh wound. And then one day I found the box (I’m not even sure how it followed me around the country for all those months) and opened it up and started reading.
I can still remember that “Hey, this isn’t half bad” moment as I got a few dozen pages in. This was followed by the “This could be better but it’s still pretty damn good” feeling that I got from some of the middle chapters. I remember not liking the ending but knowing exactly how to fix it. And as far as the language was concerned, I had just finished reading Loon Lake by E. L. Doctorow and had taken that as a license to do whatever I wanted with sentence structure and order of occurrence.
I rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the machine and started over, using that tortured first draft as a rough guide. The result would eventually get me an editor and a whole new understanding of the process of writing.
That’s why I’m not angrily deleting this draft of my current project, hurling colorful invectives in all directions as I do so. History has taught me that it’s not nearly as bad as I remember it and the parts that are bad can be fixed in the polish.
But only after it goes in a drawer for a couple months.
P.S. – For those of you weened on late 20th “poetry” here’s something to counter that weak sauce stuff:
Now that’s poetry.