the curse of the zero draft

Confession time: I am a zero-draft writer.

I have never had to work hard at this. I read a ton. I have always read a ton. I have always paid attention to the mechanics of a sentence. But I have never toiled over words in the way that many of my peers have.

(Well, okay. Pablo Neruda showed me how evocative language could be when I was sixteen and crushing on a guy I met at a German competition, and I learned enough Spanish to deconstruct the poetry in the original. But that was solely because the boy had pretty eyelashes.)

You know what that’s gotten me? Goose friggin’ egg.

I am my own enemy here: I edit as I write. It’s a terrible habit and I have never been able to break myself of it. You can almost see the red pen smudged on my fingertips like nicotine stains. And because I edit as I write, I tend toward paralysis. Yes, this is what NaNoWriMo is for, and I started it this year intending to set myself free of the editing demon; but November is a tough month to start a project under the best of circumstances, and I was traveling, et cetera, excuse excuse. Point is, I wredit.

This wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t always comparing my drafts to other people’s finished work. And I’m not talking my classmates here. I submitted my poetry to The New Yorker when I was twelve. That combination of hubris and a crushing need for validation that so many writers have? Right here, in spades, all my life.

But because I am a passable zero-draft writer, I was able to skate on–that dreaded word–talent for much of my life. Nearly all of my papers, including in grad school, were written at the last possible minute, occasionally in class. (Sorry, professors.) I actually do regret this; not only does it mean my writing skills have lain underdeveloped, it means my thinking skills have as well. I have always struggled to dig deeply into a thought, to follow it out to its logical or illogical conclusion. And the older I get, the more I suffer for having spent so little energy to begin with.

Now I see friends my age and younger writing their novels and short stories. They have put in the work, they continue to put in the work, and they get better. They know how to plot, how to determine motive and motivation, how to draw out a character over the course of a hundred thousand words. They know how to revise. They know how to get the words down in the first place.

I will cop to an exception or two. The first was standup. I had a reputation with my comedy instructor for putting together my set at the last minute, and I could never figure out why, because I worked harder at standup than I had at just about anything else I had ever written. It finally occurred to me that she kept seeing me writing during class. What she couldn’t know was that I was tightening an already solid bit with a different word choice or a new beat somewhere in the middle. What she saw as my zero draft was probably my fifth. Even months later, when I wrote down a full set sometimes the day I was to perform it, I’d been composing it in my head for weeks, drafting and redrafting through the sounds of the words.

The second exception was, and is, slam poetry. This is not the stuff I sent to my favorite magazine in junior high. If I just want to record a feeling, I dash off a few lines and call it good, sure. But if I’m going to perform a piece, if I’m going to evoke a response from my audience, the same rules are at play as in standup. Writing something once is not good enough. My poems exist on my phone, in Notes, as living documents subject to change. Sometimes I recraft a phrase; sometimes I add an entire stanza. I try not to read aloud a poem until it makes my mouth go dry. I want to risk something in my poetry. It has to fight to be heard.

In both cases, I was part of a community of fellow artists. I got to see everyone else’s process and understand that it was like my own, if not in the details, at least in the grander strokes. With standup, I saw minute-long pieces stretched into five-minute soliloquies and tall tales, becoming more baroque and unbelievable in the process. In slam, I hear poems get elaborated, become group pieces, change emphasis. Weak lines are cut. Hand gestures are performed differently. I see that satisfaction only lasts until the next challenge, and writers get better, and I too am hungry and want to get better. So I do.


About betterpast

Thirty-seven and counting. View all posts by betterpast

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