Here we are in early February, a time known as mid-winter, or so I learned from a column in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch. This same article told me that the old-timers had a saying: “Have half your wood and half your hay, and you’ll come safely through to May.” The lesson is don’t waste all that you have in the early going; you’ll need enough to see you to the end of winter.
So it is when it comes to writing fiction, and to some extent in creative nonfiction and poetry. Our first drafts should never use up all that we have in store. The first draft is rarely the final one. We have to have something in reserve even if we don’t know we’ll need it until the time comes. Which is to say we can’t settle for less in our early drafts. To help us go farther we might,
1. Write the first draft and let it generate new material, richer material, for the next draft. Pay attention to what that first draft is inviting you to explore.
2. Write more vertically in each successive draft, going down more deeply into the character relationships, the narrative events, the images, the language.
3. Write more from the self. Where are you in this piece you’re writing? Where are you in the lives of your characters and their events?
4. Pay attention to the sections that make you shiver, that make your heart come into your throat, that make you ache. Those are the sections that will matter to your readers, will come alive for them because first they came alive to you with an extreme vividness.
5. If those sections aren’t there, ask yourself why not. Ask yourself why this thing you’re writing matters so much to you. If it doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to your reader.
6. Take some time to think about the events of the narrative and how the lives of the characters contain emotional moments from your life.
7. Revisit those moments from your life. Write about them so you can feel once again their emotional resonance before transferring it onto the page in the form of your characters and their situations.
8. Remember my old writing activity about pairs of shoes you recall from childhood. Pick a pair, one that connects to an emotionally complicated moment from your past. Tell the story: “I was wearing them the day. . . .”
9. Give your characters objects from your own life, objects that, when you recall them, bring out an emotional response in you: your father’s hairbrush, the last purse your mother carried, the lederhosen your aunt sent you from Germany just before she died. Let the details take you more deeply into the experience of the narrative.
10. Play around with language. Find the voice of the narrative. Think about how it’s a voice comprised, in part, by your own voice and the voices of people with whom you’ve had an emotional connection. Let syntax, word choice, and tone more firmly connect you to the material.
At the end of a draft, there’s always something more to find. We keep writing to see what we haven’t yet said. We see what we have in reserve. We look for the nuances of character and situation that we haven’t yet considered. We find the emotional core and we feel it so we can make readers feel it, too.
Here in mid-winter—here at a time of political uncertainty and social upheaval—we may be tempted to despair just as we often do when writing a first draft or when we face the gray and cold days. Just remember that everything can be revised. We can be better, we can do better as long as we keep working at it. “A good writer,” said Bernard Malamud, “will be strengthened by his good writing at a time, let us say, of the resurgence of ignorance in our culture. I think I have been saying that the writer must never compromise with what is best in him in a world defined as free.”
The days are getting longer, my friends. I’ve seen a number of fat robins lately. Even when the cold and a groundhog in Pennsylvania remind us of how much winter we have to endure, I feel spring coming. We’re free to choose optimism if we like. We’re free to believe in the power of the written word to sustain us. We’re free to go more deeply into our first drafts—all it takes is courage and curiosity—to see what there is in reserve that we didn’t even know we had.