Drafts as a Lifestyle Choice

I used to find writing agonizing.

Probably not from the very beginning, because at first, the only people who read things I wrote were my parents, and they loved everything. And I mean, I was a weird kid. Recently, when I was visiting them, I found this…book? Comic? Field guide? that I created about flying pigs, which you can see the last page of above. I’m not sure when I started drawing pigs with wings, probably soon after I became obsessed with the work of Sandra Boynton, a leading purveyor of humorous pig, elephant, and turkey illustrations (if you’re unfamiliar, her website will reveal her wonders to you). For a while, flying pigs were just my favorite doodle, and then I guess I decided that the pictures deserved some sort of narrative/mockumentary structure. It was six pages long, and it got rave reviews from Mom and Dad, and probably odd looks from everyone else.

The first writing I can remember doing for school that I decided to get creative with was also well-received. In third or fourth grade, we got a terrarium in our classroom, and we had to make notes in our workbooks about what was going on with the various fauna living in them. Rather than simply doing your boring report, I kind of went to town, telling what happened as if it were a story, and not just any story, more like a Spielberg movie. I don’t remember all of it, but I remember writing “And then came THE SALAMANDERS!” in all block letters (I also had a phase of being really into drawing block letters, often with stripes. Basically, anything I could draw, I was really into drawing). There was also a picture of a salamander, and a very elaborate description of these creatures and how I felt about them. It was cute. I was cute. I got a good grade. I felt that I could do no wrong.

But eventually, I learned that not everything that came out of my pencil/pen was perfect. This was something of a shock, because, as someone who found learning fun and school therefore easy, for a long time, I was used to getting everything right without too much effort. At some point, however — I think it might have been once I started taking geometry — a teacher suggested that I start checking my work. This sounded like a waste of time to me, because either I knew the answer or I didn’t (and I thought I nearly always did), so what was the point? As it turned out, though, he was saying this because sometimes, I actually made mistakes. They started to show up on my tests, and I mean, I could not believe it. I would look back at a page of work and see that I had forgotten to carry the two, or justify a portion of a proof, or, God forbid, misspelled. Apparently, I was not infallible, but that wasn’t exactly my issue — as an unpopular pre-teen and then teen, who, outside of academics, seemed to always unfailingly say or do something embarrassing, I was already well acquainted with that reality. It was more the idea that I would have to do work more than once. I mean, how boring was that? If I’d already done the problem, or written the sentence, why in the heck would I want to do it again?? I liked doing things and having them be done. I was a completist. And the concept of writing something that you knew wasn’t right from the very beginning, that you’d just have to go back and fix? How utterly ridiculous.

But I couldn’t turn in work that wasn’t as good as I could make it, so now that I knew that I made errors in my writing, my new “method” was to keep revising it as I went. As you can imagine, I was greatly enabled in this by the advent of consumer-level word processing. Starting with the typewriter I got in high school that could store one sentence before printing it, and moving on, by my freshman year of college, to one that could store an entire page at a time (though it could only show you whatever portion of what you’d written would fit in a tiny little window above the keys, so basically a third of a sentence. You had to scroll through your writing very patiently if you wanted to read it back — which needless to say, was not my forte), I was now able to make corrections as I went without crossing out my mistakes until I basically had a page of black lines with illegible words scrawled in above them, around them, and falling off the margins, which was how I’d done it before. However, I now developed another problem: writers’ block, or at least writers’ anxiety. Basically, I had trouble moving on from a sentence until I felt that it was perfect, and while I thought that having a word-processor was going to make this easier, in a way, it made it worse. It was so easy to tweak and tweak and tweak and never actually finish anything, that by the time I got to the end of whatever I was writing, I was so entirely sick of it that it had to be done, regardless of whether it was in any shape to be turned in. I certainly wasn’t going to go back and rewrite something that I never wanted to look at again. As a result, my papers at that time were inevitably a mix of clever, off-the-top-of-the-head insights and terrible, reworked-until-dead filler, saddled with the perfunctory endings that come more from exhaustion than reaching any satisfying conclusion. And this terrible process made me procrastinate too, since who exactly looks forward to doing anything that’s slow, painful, and results in something just not all that good?

When I started writing screenplays in graduate school, things weren’t much better. I still tried to get everything right the first time, which actually meant, because we were taught to come up with a clear three-act structure in an outline before beginning a script, I now agonized over getting everything right even before I actually wrote anything. This was not helped by the fact that (as I’ve mentioned before) I had a couple of writing workshops with my classmates which were kind like Ultimate Fighting tournaments: you knew you were going to get your ass verbally kicked by somebody just for getting in the ring – which naturally led to even more anxiety about doing a good job. And that was as if the whole pressure of competition with my peers (many of whom, from the git-go thought less of me because I was a girl — ditto the professors), and the industry, which beat the steady refrain in my head of “Everyone and their dog wants to be a successful screenwriter, so this script has to be good enough to make you one of the soul-crushingly tiny percentage of aspiring ones to succeed” weren’t enough. But even once, after film school, I found myself in a supportive screenwriting group where people knew how to give feedback (after the unsupportive one, run by a dude who had no screenwriting credits and never submitted any of his own writing, yet ran the group like a fiefdom in which he had sole power to decide whether or not your script was ready to be discussed, and who saw no point whatsoever in scripts that didn’t fit strict genre conventions, or had female main characters), I still had trouble getting what was in my brain out on to the page. Sometimes, I’d just spend hours trying to find the right names for characters. I mean, that is important: when you’re writing a person, and you want it to feel like a real person, sometimes you have a hard time picturing them or hearing their voice in your head until you get to the point where you’re like, “Yes, she is such a Lorraine!” But if your writing style is to wait around until that name presents itself for every character in your script, you’ll never finish anything, because basically your “style” is an excuse for not writing any actual words.

Then, at some point during this period, I started blogging. It was just for fun. Well, and venting. I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published (at least not at first), it was really just a way for me to express some feelings that I had about the film business and get some perspective on this weird, often frustrating day-to-day existence I was living. So I wasn’t at all worried about who read it, or if anyone did, and that took the pressure off. Also around that time, I started going to therapy, which taught me the really important lesson of sometimes, just sometimes, letting myself off the hook. Therapy helped me figure out that the reason I so hated making mistakes was that I blamed myself for them — for all of them, every single one that I could remember, and I could remember a lot. I had trouble accepting the fact that maybe I actually couldn’t have seen every one coming, that maybe there was no real way to correct life as I went along, so I could make it all come out right the first time. And trying to do that, and the fear of failing at it, was holding me back in a million ways, not just in my writing, but in everything. It was why I had trouble trying new things, and being spontaneous, and making changes. It was why I had a problem getting into relationships, or even dating. My brain was always obsessively trying to look into the future and asking, What’s wrong with this guy that’s going to spoil everything in the end? What’s the point if I think I can already see, from the beginning, how this experience is definitely not going to be perfect? Why bother with anything or anyone unless you knew for sure that it or he or she was going to be exactly right? Well, I finally started to realize, probably because if you didn’t take the risk of trying and failing, then you never did anything very interesting at all, ever. Maybe sometimes, even if, like me, you were the opposite of a gambler, you just had to let it ride for a bit.

So I started to try writing in this novel way: as if my life did not depend on it. Like, what if the first thing I wrote was not only not perfect, it was possibly not anything like what the final version would be? It sounded crazy to me: why the heck would you want to not get it right the first time? But I was also at an age, finally — approaching my mid-30s — when I was seeing that nothing in my life had ever really turned out right the first time — because I didn’t actually know everything already. In fact, I’d been wrong about a lot of stuff that I’d thought I’d known in my teens and 20s, and not just a little wrong, a lot wrong. So why couldn’t writing be the same way?

So I started writing in drafts: just getting something on the page the first time, and then going back and revising it later. And I discovered that when I went back and looked at something I’d written a second time, it didn’t look the same. Stuff that I hadn’t figured out how to express at all in the first draft — so I’d just let it lie, knowing it was shitty and temporary — would, upon return, spark a whole new round of thoughts and words in my head that somehow hadn’t appeared before. Concepts that I hadn’t been able to figure out how to make funny the first time, probably because just trying to get out a semi-original thought was hard enough, I could actually now kind of make funny-ish — and then later on, with another draft, maybe even genuinely amusing – while stuff I’d thought was a cute and worthwhile digression when I wrote the first draft I’d now be able to see was entirely cuttable. Eventually, I realized that I was using two different parts of my brain, one that was a writer, and one that was a rewriter, and these were not the same parts. They didn’t like the same working conditions, had different senses of humor, maybe even different favorite foods — and they needed to be kept out of each other’s way. For instance, allowing the writer to work on days when I had an early call and an hour to kill on the train while the rewriter was pretending that having to stand on the Q at 6 am was just a nightmare from which it would shortly awake, could actually provide a lot of raw material that could be reworked later. On the other hand, there would be days when I was feeling completely uninspired, not up to the task of coming up with something new, but the rewriter was ready to go in and say, “Well, someone might actually want to read that if you wrote it like this instead.” (You can see why my inner rewriter must sometimes be sedated or benched: she really is that snarky. But seeing as you’re here, you probably already knew that.)

This way of doing things fed back into my life as a whole. It’s no coincidence that, when I had a serious breakup less than six months after I started writing my first blog, I decided not to sit around and obsess about how broken my future was, but to put everything in storage and go travel in Guatemala for seven weeks — because fuck, I’d never done anything like that before. And then I did the same thing in Argentina and Chile the following year. And then the following year I drove to Maine with a stranger I hardly knew to start a new documentary that ended up becoming Flat Daddy. And in none of those situations did I know what was going to happen. I just decided that I would let it ride for a little while and figure it out later.

Now, I wouldn’t exactly say that this is the secret to my success, since I’m still not particularly successful by the standards of most people — fame, fortune, perfect hair — but I sure have experienced a lot more interesting things, and created more work that I’m pleased with, than I ever would have done otherwise (with all the fucking up along the way providing reams of additional material). Of course, a lot of what you do in life you can’t revise. But with the things you can, you’d be surprised at how much better things turn out the second time. Or the third.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.