What Is a Draft, Anyway?

Asking for a friend.

Four years ago, I started down a dangerous path. Picture this: author upon author upon author ad infinitum around a cramped conference table, day in and day out, flaying their souls bare beneath the critical eye of their peers, their professors, and their own worst instincts.

Graduate school is exhausting.

No, that’s not right. Graduate school — a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing — is harrowing. And after a year battling impostor syndrome, chronic fatigue, my own deep-seated terror of failure, and my insecurities over liking to read and write things which are not … strictly … literary.

Oh, the pressure to conform never goes away. Sorry, high-schoolers. This particular misery of human life is a constant one; only the object changes. (Now, for example, I’m torn between wanting to flaunt my aro ace identity, and wanting to keep the respect of some of my peers … who don’t … you know … like the LGBTQIA+ community very much.)

Anyway.

In the midst of the graduate melodrama, thick with rumors of this student sleeping with that professor and that student doing this drug or this student needing to be committed for emergency psychiatric care to that hospital or that professor asking this student to medicate some aging cats while their humans were on vacation — well, let’s just say I found myself missing those retreats, those havens into which I used to launch myself from the deep blue of depression.

Science fiction, for example. Science fiction saved me as a child. It saved me as a teenager, and it saved me as an undergraduate.

But it wasn’t … acceptable … reading material for someone expected to mainline her D’Agata and Abbey and Dillard and Lessing and McKibben and Nabokov and Sontag and … well, let’s just assume, for the moment, that the recommended reading list I received when I was admitted was — is — five pages long. And despite listing quite a few bonafide gems, also contained, well, about three pages full of white, Western, male authors I had zero interest in reading.

I was simultaneously both bored out of my wits and stressed out of my mind at all times during graduate school. The workload was intense; I fussed over each and every manuscript as if it were a beloved child I was leading to the altar in the manner of Abraham hog-tying Isaac. I learned a lot — so much — about how not to write.

And also, a little, of the books that would bring me back from the brink:

Science fictional books.

So, enter Tony, stage left. Tony was a fellow student, a fellow disenchanted soul, and a poet with a background in math and science. (Now he’s in a Geography PhD program and we podcast about science fiction over at The Imaginaries.) He proposed, and together we made a plan, to create our own independent study. Which ended up being a slight bit of a dud, yes, but which gave us an excuse to read a bunch of books we’d been intending to get to for a long time and … hadn’t quite gotten to.

It was a recharge.

The next semester, we both started writing science fiction in another class, which wasn’t supposed to be the point of the class at all but turned out to be exactly what we needed to do in order to survive our thesis semester.

And we did.

We survived graduate school.

Afterward, in the void that is job-hunting mania, the smidgens and bracts of sci-fi I wrote in that final year got swept under the rug. I was burnt out, I was angry, I had a deeply and tenderly problematic relationship with my fractured family … I was a mess.

Still am, clearly.

It took me over two years to get back to writing, with intervals of poor relationship choices, an identity crisis, and plenty of neurodivergent brain chemistry to keep me busy. Oh, and the whole new job thing, a job which I love (love, love) but which sucks up most of my time and energy.

Then came NaNoWriMo 2015, and I wasn’t ready. I tried … but I didn’t complete the challenge. Oh well. I was struggling.

By the time November 2016 rolled around, I wasn’t sure if I would ever write again. But a coworker encouraged me, and I set about bumping up my morning alarm by two hours and writing daily. It wasn’t always a success, but it was … enough. I completed the challenge, and the first half of a first draft.

(It’s going to be a doozy of a book. Weapon-sized.)

I spent the following months completing the draft, which anyone can tell you is the harder half of the draft to get done. After the first page, anyway. It didn’t help that this was all happening at the same time as Donald Trump — you know, I can’t even revisit those months in the aftermath without crumpling up into self-loathing defeatism again, so let’s skip on by.

I started 2017 with a goal: do something real. Something meaningful, something complete. I’ve finished a book once before, but not one I cared about in the same way. Not something that could sit on the same shelf as the books which have saved me so often.

So I sat back down with my dilapidated, holey first draft and started the rewrite.

Agony.

Who does this for fun?

Ugh. First drafts are hard, but second drafts are “oh GOD I think my brain must be broken for me to have written this scene” and “DEAR SWEET CHEESE PUFFS why the hell didn’t I notice that plot discontinuity the first time around?” and “holy mother of Mord, I’ll never be able to tweet Jeff Vandermeer or Margaret Atwood in good conscience AGAIN.”

It has been a rough six months.

Thankfully, I’m done … and the third rewrite should go much more quickly. Here, enjoy this snapshot of the finished, pristine second draft:

I’m about to funk that sucker up, bad.

What is a draft, anyway? It’s a hell-hole, a real shit-faced little miscreant, a monster waiting its meal, a Southern deep-fried finger of death to the soul. And it’s also a beautiful, glorious piece of someone’s mind.

A draft is proof. Not the only proof, but definite proof that you’re in it. You’re in it for good, now. You will always have written that draft, and you get to keep the sudden wobbly feeling of disconnect with the universe that inevitably follows with you in your heart forever.

-KMM

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