Of first, worst drafts


The New Yorker April 29 issue, with John McPhee’s piece “The Writing Life: Drft No. 4”  (subscription required) could not have arrived at a better time.

I’m only on Draft No. 2 of my sequel to Montana, still light years away from the growing certainty that accompanies a fourth draft – but light years ahead of the absolute torture that is the first. 

“There are psychological differences from phase to phase,” McPhee writes, “and the first is the phase of the pit and the pendulum. After that it seems as if a different person is taking over. Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting.”

“Dread” is a perfect word to apply to first drafts.  “My animal sense of being hunted,” McPhee calls it, and that’s as good a description as any. I can almost picture slavering doubts eager to devour the plodding writer of  any first draft. In fact, when working on a first draft, I can spend hours conjuring pictures of such doubts rather than setting words down on the blank page.

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, her essential book on writing, talks about the necessity of “shitty first drafts.” Boy, do I ever have that part down cold.

Thing is, for years my standard answer to the standard job-interview question about writers I most admire was “John McPhee.” Now I find out that, even at the top of his game, he’s still a damn mess during his first drafts. Which means that my own process isn’t likely to get any easier – insult on top of the injury of knowing that I’ll never approach his level of mastery.

I could natter on like this for a while longer, but it’s just a cheap trick to put off getting back to work on that second draft. And I really need to finish that because the third will be easier and the fourth easier still. Onward.

(McPhee image: Macmillan)

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