I wrote this a while ago, but it’s information I constantly need to remind myself of: just write the damn thing already!!
Last week I helped run two two-day professional development programs at work. After a fairly frenzied week of lead up, the actual events were much more sedate. As in nearly dead. Perfect for me, my iPad, and wireless keyboard to spend some quality time together in between the random logistical questions and photocopying requests.
I’ve always been a holdout, preferring page to screen, but over the last couple of years that’s shifted. And now that the technology allows for a similar level of portability, for me, paper’s fate has been all but sealed (although my shoddy handwriting has been pushing things in this direction for a while now). In grade school and high school I was devoted to paper for the way that I could erase mistakes to get clean pages that could then be passed around, traded among friends who were also writing on the installment plan. If revision did come into play it was for spelling or punctuation errors because once you got your notebook back you would again be moving forward, unspooling the narrative with no time to retread ground.
And yet it was the pencil, fading away on scruffy, worn pages, that pushed me to start using something with more staying power. Enter the pen and my constant quest for a thick, dark line that wouldn’t smudge or bleed. Now mistakes would be struck through with a single line, an X in the margins would indicate paragraphs destined for deletion. Drafting became a messy, tactile matter of arrangement. Not bad for the short stories preferred in college creative writing classes but unwieldy for anything much longer.
But the screen – this feels like a return to that clean page where erasures are nothing but a momentary scuffing, albeit now of keys. Backstroke back to a more sure word. Onward into the next blank space.
Over the two days with iPad and keyboard I was able to move two story lines forward, getting down several new scenes of each, and it was fun. No stultifying hints of writer’s block while I stared at lines I’d just crossed out and no panic while I froze at the prospect of deciphering pages that looked like football plays, all arrows and Xs pushing around blocks of what passed for cursive. On the screen it was easy to pile up the words and cut down those that didn’t fit before I’d have the chance to overthink them. Rather than risk losing the story, I’d include whole sentences (in parens) to remind myself of what I wanted to say when I had the time to slow down. I followed the story along any absurd (or sublime) pathways that presented themselves knowing that yes, I’ll probably throw away most of it. But I’d have something to go back to. The ideas were there.
It sounds so obvious, but it’s something I’m only now circling back to. Somewhere along the line, I forgot the simple pleasure and a surprise of telling a story; that the cleverness I love in my favorite writers (and hope to have myself) is there in the service of the story, not the other way around. I’m sure I’ll forget this again, but my epiphany for now is that revision is a separate art. It’s only the constant drive forward that makes a first draft.
To get the story down, there is no looking back.