“Sometimes I go about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.”
~Translated from an anonymous Ojibway by Robert Bly and Frances Densmore
Dorothy Parker, bless her soul, was addicted to revision. She could not move forward with a piece of writing until the line she was working on was perfect. Although the end result was usually marvelous, this practice made writing a painfully slow process for her. Although I am not one to put down anyone’s writing process, especially not someone as talented as Parker, I would never recommend that any of us emulate her.
Writing is one process, editing quite another. They require different skills, and trying to conflate the two, I think, more often results in writer’s block than good writing. That’s why Anne Lamott famously urged us to give ourselves permission to write a “shitty first draft.” Poet Peter Murphy tells his workshop students to simply “lower your standards.”
Lowering one’s standards can be easier said than done for anyone who, like me, went to Catholic School and contended with formidable English teachers like Sister Jean (8th grade) and Miss Clark (9th grade). But it’s essential to let that internal editor go away (or at least go to sleep) when sitting down at the computer and facing a big white block of empty space on the screen, or when you first open a new notebook and see empty line after empty line of smooth paper waiting for strokes of a pen or pencil.
It can be helpful to remember that no one (except oneself) ever needs to see a first draft. It absolutely does not matter what that draft looks like, if it is punctuated, if it is grammatical, or even if it makes sense. The only thing that matters: putting words on a page. Any words. Nonsense words. Quotations. Words chosen randomly from a dictionary. (A paper dictionary, so I can close my eyes, open the book, and plunk a finger down. I tried it three times today, resulting in graphic, inauspicious, sequel. I can do something with those!)
Once the words are on the page or have been saved on the computer, the thing to do, of course, is let them go utterly out of your consciousness. Write something else, clean a closet, walk the dog. Come back to them tomorrow, next week, next month. Then you can let your inner editor go to town, and figure out which lines, or at worst, which words, are worth holding onto because there’s the germ of a poem in there.
Often, I start out with a shapeless batch of lines in penmanship that has only gotten worse since Sister Jean used to shake her head at it. Then I type it, which helps it take form. Maybe the lines need to be skinny. Maybe they need to be long. If I have a short poem of say, 13-16 lines, then I see if it wants to be a sonnet. Editor me and writer me alternate the work, usually pruning it back, sometimes needing to add. If I have to cut a line I’m crazy about, I’ll copy and paste it into a “hold” file in hopes of maybe using it someday. Other lines are easier to let go.
Sometimes, a poem will seem hopeless, but I still hold onto it. I put it in a file and don’t even look at it until I am so desperate to procrastinate that I actually let a fit of cleaning take hold of me, and then I sort and file and stumble across that draft that didn’t work. Most of the time, it still doesn’t work, but once in a while, I have an aha! moment and see what needs to be pruned or grafted on, and a successful poem emerges with deceptive ease—in some cases, years after I wrote the first draft.
Every writer has times when we sit in front of the computer, or tap our pen against an empty college-ruled pad, pitying ourselves because the poem/story/scene just isn’t there yet. That’s when we have to remind ourselves: let go of that internal editor, and lower our standards at least for a while, so the writer in us can be carried by those great, creative winds. Only then can we let the spirits of Sister Jean and Miss Clark back in the process as we turn that inauspicious sequel into something satisfyingly graphic.
Pat Valdata is poet and novelist. Her new book of persona poems in the voices of women aviation pioneers, Where No Man Can Touch, received the 2015 Donald Justice Prize and was published in June. Pat recently completed a two-week writing residency at the Dickinson House in Olsene, Belgium.
Ann Bracken, Barbara Morrison, and Pat Valdata will reading and signing their books on November 14th from 2-4 pm at the Johns Hopkins Barnes and Noble.