“You can’t know if it’s any good while you’re writing it.”
Like most professional writers, I get a lot of people asking me for advice. The other day, someone asked how I know if a piece is worthwhile. “Do you know it’s good stuff before you start? Do you know while you’re writing it?”
Those are fair questions, and ones I hear pretty often. And the answer is: DEAR GOD, NO.
Most of the time, I start with very little — the barest sketch of a scene, a snippet of conversation, a fragment of an idea written half-assedly on the back of my hand. I don’t dare judge my idea at this point. No, no, no. I have to get everything out before I know if it’s still worth pursuing.
Often, it is. Sometimes, it’s not. But having written about it is never a waste of time. The ideas need to percolate through my brain and out my fingers and onto the page. Then they need to sit a while. That’s how writers figure out if what they’re working on is worth a damn.
Easy enough, right? But, no.
I forget this truth all the time. And I have to remind myself of it all the time — as in, daily. Other writers remind me of it, too.
A couple years ago, I was having trouble hammering out the first draft of my novel. Nothing I did seemed to work. So I asked a writer friend for help. She had just published a stunning book of exquisite new poems — the kind of stuff that, as Emily Dickinson put it so well, “takes the top of my head off.” My friend invited me to her house on a thick July evening, where we sat on her back porch, sipped bourbon, and talked writing.
“I’m struggling,” I told her, “struggling like I never have before.”
“Mmhmm.” She nodded. The melting ice in her glass clinked as it collapsed on itself.
“The words are so slow to come. Paint dries faster than I can write. All I can think while I’m typing is, Oh my God, this is awful. This is the worst stuff I’ve ever written. And I can’t make it stop.”
“Yep,” she said. “Sounds about right.”
I took another sip of whiskey. “So what do I do? I’ve got a book to write, but all I can come up with is garbage.”
My friend was quiet for a moment. Fireflies blinked their evening hello-hello-goodbye above the giant hostas by her porch. Finally, she sighed. “You can’t know if it’s any good while you’re writing it.”
She got up and poured herself another drink. “If you stop mid-process and try to determine how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is, you lose your momentum. You lose your flow. Stopping to look at the details before they’re on the page blocks the process.”
“Right,” I said.
“There is no way you can know. There just isn’t. The knowing comes later. You have to get it all out there first, and then let it sit. Only then can you make value judgments.” She smiled. “To get to that point, maybe you’re just going to have to write a bunch of absolutely horrible first drafts.”
“Yeah. Maybe so.”
My friend sat back in her chair. “Remember last summer, when I went to New York? I spent three days there poring over Arthur Miller’s personal papers — Death of a Salesman, in particular. Today, we know it as a classic. It’s perfect. But looking at all those drafts, especially the earliest ones, helped me understand how much steady, persistent work he put into the play.”
I nodded. “How so?”
“Those first drafts aren’t very good. They’re immature, even didactic. I couldn’t see much of Miller at all in there. There were characters that didn’t make any sense, didn’t seem to have a purpose in the play. But I kept reading, draft after draft after draft. I saw all the lines and characters he cut out, or revised, or added. It gets stronger with each version, all the way to the one we know as the official Death of a Salesman. The one we cover in English 1102.”
She drank deeply from her glass, then spoke again. “Reading through all those drafts made me understand that it’s not just a great play. It’s a great play that began as a not-very-good play, and that got better and better in stages, over time. Miller took his bad drafts and kept on reshaping and revising them. Same with my book. Some of those poems I wrote while I was still in grad school. If you look at what I wrote in 1994, it sucks. But the version I put in the collection? With 20 years of distance, and at least 18 months of reshaping and revising? It’s great.”
I laughed, and finished the last of my bourbon. “Well, damn. If a bunch of horrible drafts are good enough for you and Arthur Miller, then they’re good enough for me.”
Sure enough, my friend reminded me of this great truth of writing: It never happens perfectly the first time we get it down. Often, it doesn’t happen the second, third, fourth, or maybe even 17th time. The strange magic here lies in our having faith in the process. We keep going, even when we think we’re just producing trash. When we keep showing up to meet our ideas and ourselves on the page, version after version, our writing becomes strong and clean and new — almost without our realizing it.
And that is all I have to say today — after 24 drafts.
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)
NOTE: This piece first appeared on my website on 22 July 2016.