First Drafts: The Delight of the Surprise

This afternoon, Cathy and I made our first pilgrimage of the growing season to Bambi’s Produce Market a few miles out in the country from where we live. Sunday afternoons, so it seems, are perfect for such trips, partly because we have the time and partly because such drives remind me of similar ones I used to go on with my parents when I was a child in southeastern Illinois.

“Let’s take a ride,” my father would say, and off we’d go.

We had no destination and no purpose. We merely drove for the sake of driving. We never knew what or who we’d encounter along the way. We were open to the delight of the surprise.

Invariably, my father would head for the gravel roads of Lukin Township where we owned an 80-acre farm, and as he’d drive, he’d point out farms where people he knew used to live. Now they were empty houses, or concrete steps in the midst of brush or woodlands, or rows of daffodils that used to line a fence around a farmyard.

“That’s the Shick place,” he’d say, passing a grassy lane leading back from the road. Or, “That’s where Ralph and Flossie Brian used to live.”

There was a history to that township, and my father was giving it to me. Now, when I drive those same roads, I remember the names from my childhood. I remember what it felt like to be riding with my parents on a Sunday afternoon. We had all the time in the world. We didn’t know where we were going, and we didn’t care. We always ended up someplace. Maybe we’d stop at the Ridgley or the Gilead Cemetery to tidy up the family graves, or maybe we’d end up at the home of someone my parents knew just to sit a while and visit. Yes, people went visiting in those days. No need to call ahead. No need to arrange a date or a time. Pop-ins were the rule of the day. We spent so many summer Sundays sitting in lawn chairs, often of the metal kind, under the shade trees at someone’s farmhouse. I especially enjoyed the houses that had wide porches and a swing hanging from the ceiling. I loved the easy motion of gliding back and forth, my feet inches above the porch floor. I listened to the rattle of leaves when a breeze moved through the branches. I loved the sound of my parents’ voices—my father’s storytelling one and my mother’s sweet, soft register and the easy way she’d laugh.

I think about all this today when Cathy and I drive out into the country. It’s a countryside whose history we don’t know. We drive by newly-built houses my parents would have considered mansions. We drive by old farmhouses still holding on. We drive by fields of corn and soybeans and wheat. I think we’re only going to Bambi’s to get produce and then driving straight home where I’ll write this blog, but we’re not pleased with the price of green beans and we really want some for our supper tonight, so we find ourselves back in town at a Kroger’s that doesn’t have a single fresh green bean, and since we’re near our favorite garden center we stop in to see what we can see, and I smell the most wonderfully fragrant gardenia flower, and then we go to another grocery store, which does indeed have fresh green beans for sale, and on the way to the checkout I spot a bottle of wine from one of my favorite vinters, Oliver Wineries near Bloomington, Indiana. It’s a variety I’ve never seen, a blueberry Moscato, and I can’t resist buying it, and on our way home we see our neighbors, Tim and Shelley on their front porch, and we stop to talk, and I tell them about the wine because they both went to school at Indiana University in Bloomington, and I find out that Shelley likes sweet wines, and I say I’d be glad to share my bottle, and. . .well, you see where this post is going.

Writing the first draft is like a Sunday drive with no destination in mind. All it takes is a curiosity, a willingness to let your words lead you, and an openness to surprise. Don’t try to dictate or predetermine. If a scene you didn’t see coming appears, live in it to see what you might find. If a detail or an image appears, let it stay to see what it might be trying to tell you about the thing you’re writing. If a character says or does something that surprises you, embrace it and then test it to see if it feels true. If language surprises you, do the same. Everything can be changed in a second draft if need be. The important thing about writing a first draft, though, is to be alert and courageous and receptive. Our first drafts are always smarter than we are. They know where they want to go and what they want to be. They send clues to us all the time. We have to be open to all that’s happening and to all that has happened and to what it all means.

Be willing to follow a road even if you don’t know where it’s going. Let it show you.



  1. Nita Leland on June 24, 2019 at 10:00 am

    “Live in it to see what you might find.” This is probably the most important lesson I learned as I wrote my memoir, Born Creative.

    • Lee Martin on June 25, 2019 at 11:19 am

      Nita, isn’t it amazing what can happen if we just slow down and make ourselves look and experience a scene, both in fiction and, as you say, in memoir. Thanks very much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment.

  2. Iris Breed on June 24, 2019 at 7:10 pm

    Awesome. This is so much like the childhood Hail and I had (except for the wine—our parents were very proud that liquor never touched their lips). You have perfectly described a wonderful time and have taken my mind on a wonderful journey.

    • Lee Martin on June 25, 2019 at 11:20 am

      Iris, I was wondering who Hail was! Glad you liked the post.

  3. Iris Breed on June 24, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    That’s GAIL. Not hail nor hell either.

Leave a Comment