Dispatch #32: On Writing a First Draft
This one's for Albert
Today I worked on my new book. It wasn’t for very long—an hour and a half, maybe— but the process felt freer than it has in a while. I was, if briefly, inside the text. The real world beyond my story disappeared.
That’s the best feeling. I’ve spent over half my life chasing this feeling.
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I’d been trying to write this scene for weeks. No, that’s not true: I hadn’t even tried. I avoided it altogether. It felt…impossible. Every time I thought about my fledgling novel I felt all these bad feelings: fear, dread, anxiety, exhaustion, apathy. I couldn’t figure out how to dream this book—or not how, but when. I still had one foot in book publicity for Time’s Mouth, and parenting felt so difficult, unrelenting, and I was teaching on top of that. My mind did not have the space for this dreaming.
I’d spent the last five years rewriting the same book, over and over again. Drafting an entirely new novel? That’s a muscle I forgot how to use.
How does one write a novel?
I started this new one when I was at Ucross for twelve days in April. I had two weeks, a gift from the writing gods—I had no idea what to write, but it was imperative that I write something. So I took notes and read Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry until I sobbed and I talked to myself on a dirt path as the cows in the fields eyed me suspiciously. I texted with my friend Albert about some plot details related to a topic I knew little about. Albert had taken a seminar with me years ago but he wasn’t a writer. We’d become internet friends, and he read this newsletter. He had a lot of great ideas for this scene I was writing.
In those hours to myself, I wrote 40 pages. Sometimes I loved them. I delighted in the voice, the sentences, the intention. Sometimes, though, I worried the book wasn’t relevant enough. I worried about the fact that it lacked a hook. I worried it wouldn’t matter. You see, my mind was already looking ahead to Time’s Mouth coming out in August. Publicity brain was slinking in to rot my creative brain.
Returning to LA, I set the pages aside so that publicity brain could have its time in the sun. Occasionally I thought of the new pages, but they also felt not-quite-real, not yet a novel. If anyone asked me what I was working on next, I’d say, “This thing about a mother with an interesting job.”
It’s true, it was just this thing on my computer. For months, I never once opened the document, which was by design. This was book promotion era, and I wanted to separate it from my creative life.
When I came back to the pages in October, I was again on a writing retreat. I realized it was the first time, in all the times (six) I’ve been to this particular writing retreat (Dorland), that I wasn’t wrestling with Time’s Mouth. That desk, and that view, those hiking trails, and that porch—they had never held me and my brain through any other book. Wow.
When I was revising Time’s Mouth, I sometimes thought with longing of how it would feel so freeing and wild to start something new, without any pressure or expectation. It would be all exploration. Of course, now that I’m drafting, I wish I could propel myself into a brighter future, into a time when I would have material to work with, however uneven or problematic, something to parse and reshape with the knowledge and wisdom gained from the drafting phase.
At Dorland I did research. Pages of it. I read a book on the topic I know little about, and watched a bunch of YouTube videos. I found I knew more than I did in April. I didn’t text Albert, but I had some questions for him lined up. For six days, I fiddled with my 40 pages and I wrote 20 more.
Still the worries dogged me. Is it relevant, is it sexy, who will care? Publicity brain hadn’t slunk back into its ditch yet. It hadn’t read the memo that its time, for now, was over.
I also felt more liberated than I had in April, because while Time’s Mouth was well received, and many people have written to tell me they loved it, it was also not a hit, no one cared, etc.
To make art, you have to nurse the simultaneous delusion that your next project will make a difference to the world…and also that no one in the world cares what you do, so you should do whatever the fuck you want. Most of the time at Dorland, I was able to do this.
After I returned from my writing retreat, though, I got sucked back into the daily chaos of my domestic life, my teaching, my bullshit. I opened the novel document a few times here or there, but I also didn’t prioritize it. The big terrors about the project kept bugging me.
On the retreat, when I had all day to work on the book, what I really liked to do was play inside a scene. I messed around with syntax. I’d replace a boring verb with an interesting one. Pepper in a joke. Nerd out on where to place the exposition, where to braid in the promise of plot to unfold. Lean into vibe. It took three days to write one scene, and every day I’d go back and embroider. I made the room a real room. I designed a window. I described a suitcase, the light. I imagined a husband and wife about to have sex for the thousandth time.
It was fun as long as I didn’t stop to think if any of it mattered, if it meant anything.
But In the time away from the book, I kept wondering, Does it matter?
Not long after I returned from my writing retreat, I saw that Albert had unsubscribed from this newsletter. I emailed him to see if he wanted me to comp him, to check in, to see if there was something wrong. We weren’t close, had only met three times in our entire lives, but we’d met up for a glass of wine not that long ago, over the summer, my treat, a small way to thank him for his help.
Albert wrote back to say he was in hospice. That’s why he had unsubscribed. He had cancer. I’d had no idea. He had never mentioned it. I felt so angry at the universe—so many assholes thriving and this happens to someone like Albert? It’s fucked up.
We had a brief email exchange. I was so grateful for the time he’d spent with me on this book idea. I wanted him to know that I’d never forget his generosity. It was a gift to me.
He died five days later.
I keep thinking about Albert, a person I knew hardly at all. He didn’t have to help me with this book and yet he did. His interest told me the book does matter.
Albert loved wine and he taught me just a sliver of what he knew and it’s in my book.
This week, I needed to get back to the novel, if only because I am alive, and writing is one of the things I like best about being alive. I also wanted to do right by Albert, to not have wasted his time, which was more valuable than I could have known.
So, yesterday, I opened the document. I told myself not to worry about the project’s Importance. I told myself not to worry about the pacing, either. Or the order of events. If the flashback was boring. Who cares if, in draft numero uno, I have two scenes that I’ll later erase? I would learn that eventually, with the wisdom of retrospection. The only way out is through, and I don’t want to be out, anyway. I want to be in.
Drafting is hard for me because I am obsessive about prose and I want to get everything right before I move on, even as I know, chances are, I’ll have to rip out the stitches and redo it all anyway. I have to accept that this might happen. It’s okay.
I told myself to just step inside the text.
Today I did that. I really did. I was working on the level of the sentence, the level of scene. My favorite. I was simply attempting to describe something —in this case, a few trees, a teenage daughter in a nightgown and sneakers, a blue sky. I was digging into a moment. I was doing it as best as I could, in the mindset of my narrator. To see the world as she sees it. If I wrote a sentence with “but” (a bad habit of mine), I erased it and tried again; or I let it be because that was what had to be written. I made myself laugh. I tried to describe this plant. I zipped through some dialogue.
I was reminded that a first draft needs to be what it wants to be. It has no story about itself yet. It’s accumulating meaning and that meaning isn’t fixed yet, it’s an unwieldy, amorphous thing that doesn’t know why it is what it is. That’s not my problem, not yet, anyway. That’s for rewriting. Right now I have to simply follow the draft.
Today I thought of Albert, as I have every day since I learned of his passing. Today, writing, I was inside a place that only exists in my brain. I put it on the page for someone else. If this scene ends up staying in the book, Albert won’t be alive to read it. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
Thank you, Albert, for everything.