Here we are, about three weeks before Christmas, and then, at least for us here in central Ohio, the turn into the gray days of January and February. It’s always been a time when I’ve been inclined to hibernate, and even more so these days of the pandemic. I’m trying my best to embrace the hunkering down, the burrowing in, the necessary rest where I remind myself to just breathe. Complicating that acceptance is, of course, all that I miss from the days before COVID-19: the dinners with neighbors at our favorite local restaurants, the in-person writing workshops and the spontaneous interactions and energies inhibited by meeting now via Zoom, the intimate gatherings with friends in one another’s homes, the travel.
Life is about to slow down in a big way, and I’m looking for the positives in that fact, chief among them the invitation to take note of the small graces that bless us each day—blessings I may have taken for granted in the rush of what used to pass as normal: the purr of my cat Stella when she flops down beside me and wants her belly rubbed; the beauty of my wife Cathy in nearly everything she does, in the meals she prepares, in the way she wraps a package, in the way she calls me, “Baby”; the way sunlight slants across our family room floor late in the afternoon; the call of geese as they fly over at dusk. All these small things grown large in the threat COVID poses. The possibility of never experiencing them again draws me up short while at the same time inviting me to really look and feel each moment that brings me pleasure.
This close examination of what blesses me—and by extension all that threatens those blessings—has become necessary to my living and has reminded me of the necessity of such to my writing. This past semester, I asked my graduate students to write one piece, rather than the customary two, and then to take that piece through two revisions. I’ve been reading their “final” versions, and I’ve been amazed by how each piece has deepened. By asking these writers to look more closely at elements of the piece that were absent or barely developed in the first drafts, I’ve invited them to burrow down, to do a deep dive of sorts, to open up the little moments that may have gotten short shrift early on, and to live with their pieces longer than they may have if they’d been moving on to write a second piece. In short, I asked these writers to hibernate with their pieces for a while in hopes that they would see aspects that were there just waiting to be realized. The results have been amazing.
So I guess I’m asking all of us to do that deep dive into the material, to not be impatient with the work we’ve put on the page, to live with it long enough to know it fully, to let it have its full range of expression.
Here, then, are five places to look in a first draft, places where the piece wants to say more than it is:
- The back story. Any narrative contains one—the lives our characters have lived before the action begins. What’s happened before those characters step onto the page that resonates when placed in the dramatic present?
- The small details: Pay attention to the things your characters pay attention to. They’re things, yes, but they’re also containers for the characters’ desires and fears. Use the props you give your character in the action of the narrative. Ask yourself why these objects are important to the characters. Perhaps one of those objects will even turn into a metaphor that will help the narrative better express itself.
- The setting: The landscape can also be expressive. Don’t ignore it. Often we sketch in a setting in a first draft without understanding how it helps move a narrative along. Our next drafts can expand that setting. They can evoke more details and then make them more, well, evocative. Do the setting in detail and it can show you the story.
- The structure: Ask yourself what scenes you’ve omitted in the first draft. You should be particularly alert to what I’ll call the obligatory scenes, the ones the narrative is obliged to include based upon what gets set in motion in the opening. Make sure you write those scenes. These days, I often observe first drafts that avoid scenes of conflict. Write those scenes. See what they open up.
- The opposites: Our narratives resonate and become memorable when something contradictory rises at the end, something present from the beginning but submerged, something that requires the pressures of the narrative in order to rise. Our characters and their situations are comprised of opposites. Challenge yourself to identify the thing we’d least expect in any given character and situation and then see if you can construct a narrative that will allow that opposite thing to rise in a surprising and yet convincing way.
When we take the time to do a deep dive into our pieces, we allow them to show us more of what they want to be. In the winter days ahead, I hope you’ll all find the blessings of patience, endurance, admiration, inspection. I hope you’ll all take time to appreciate the nuances of all that life gives us, not only in our personal lives, but in the lives we put on the page as well.