They say all writing is rewriting; what they don’t say is that rewriting—yes, vital—often feels like stasis.
When I talk with writer friends about what constitutes a “good day’s work” we will nearly all say that the best feeling is to have written something new. To go back to something old—whether it’s looking over something that appeared on paper only the day before, or pulling a piece out of the drawer where it’s been sitting for six months or six years—can be a wonderful experience. But it can also be frustrating.
When it comes to poetry, I write my first drafts by hand—and usually the second draft too; maybe even the third, fourth, fifth and sixth as well. Though the lines may change when a poem is transferring to the computer (because the length of the line in handwriting can be different from the length of the line in typescript, among other things) it is nearly always true that the words themselves are nailed down. At times I write the initial drafts in prose, and treat lineation as an entirely separate process. While form and content really are inextricably linked, both form and content take time to nuzzle into being and don’t necessarily arrive at the same time; even so, changing the line, the stanza, the shape can also bring about small changes in the words themselves. Minor changes I enact at the keyboard; major operations take me back to pen and paper.
All of this, of course, is work—but at the end of the day it doesn’t feel like work, especially if the thing isn’t finished. To rewrite a poem for hours, or go over and over an essay of a few thousand words and to come back with no definitive “solution” (no solution is really definitive…) is disheartening. What makes it even more disheartening is that I end up feeling I have done nothing at all.
This isn’t what I tell students. To students I say: no work is wasted work, and I believe this is true, for them and for myself. But it doesn’t matter that all that work that feels invisible right now will shine through in time—because at the end of the day I want to feel that I have accomplished more than finishing a load of laundry while trying to write.
Much of what we do as writers is to sit and worry at things at which we have already worried for far too long. Poets do at a microscopic level what novelists do on a much larger scale: see that something isn’t “taking” and open up the whole work for a new attempt at resuscitation. Often it is just a matter of waiting it out—solutions come unbidden at odd moments—but again, that doesn’t feel production. “What did you do today?” “I waited.” Whether for Erato or Godot, one never quite knows.
With a final draft something is sealed and the impact of being able to heave another piece out of my mind is relaxing. With the drafts between the first, when something new comes into the world, and the final, when something “grows up,” so to speak, I feel I’m biding time, though crucial changes are made in those moments.
Last night I opened up an essay, already over a year old, and began again to work with it: I knew when I last laid it down that it was not yet done, but I pushed the essay aside, because it was all I could do. Diving back into it all these months later I found myself removing two sentences here, adding two sentences there, shifting paragraphs around and finally, hazily, understanding what needs to be done to finish the piece. It’s daunting to go into it again, but writing is always a marathon of sorts.
I sometimes think of authors who get it right the first time—who write “at the white heat” and either score a hole in one, or write in a state of possession until everything is in place. I have experienced this once or twice, and my impression of other writers’ narratives of “one-and-done” drafts is that it is for them, too, a rare occurrence. And during the hours of looking uncomprehendingly at another draft, I have to remind myself that the only reason poems sometimes arrive seemingly fully formed is because of this practice in between.
I think, too, of Annie Dillard. In her book The Writing Life—a book that was very influential when I was just starting out as a writer—Dillard recounts the conversations she has had with people who want to be writers. When people ask her how or if or what do I need she simply replies, “Do you like sentences?”
And when all is said and done, I love sentences. I love smaller syntactical units, I love lines and line breaks, I love editing a piece of writing it has the sheen of desert varnish. The time spent over a page not getting anywhere is important because it is also time not spent at some other task either: my mind empties itself of all the extra noise of days until in stillness it sees a way forward. Then I move forward.