by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
The first draft of a novel always feels like a marathon for me. I will write a few paragraphs and then read them and then re-write them, add some more paragraphs and repeat the whole process again (ad nauseum). I just really, really want my novels to be good. To be worthy of reading. To be something I can be proud of.
I remember studying for my end of high school exams and Brother Celestine reminding me, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien (the best is the enemy of the good)”. Both he and Voltaire understood that our desire and desperation to be perfect was a hopeless cause and ultimately counter-productive – that it would cause stagnation through never-ending improvements spurred on by fear of failure and crippling self-doubt.
I wish I could say that I went on to heed their advice, but I still strive for a kind of perfection every time I start a novel. I want my words to encourage me along the path, to reassure me that I am a capable writer whose story is worth telling. This inevitably results in a very long (and always, in the end, aborted) first draft process.
But this time it will be different. Why? Because I have two pieces of the puzzle I didn’t have before.
The first piece – I am not alone. Seems like this is a fairly typical illness most writers are plagued with.
Second piece – I now have some reassurance that writing a messy, incoherent, awful first draft is not only common, but necessary.
Joshua Wolf Shenk said it best when he advised that it is
Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft
The quote immediately reminded me of sculptors – who hack at a piece of marble or hew a piece of wood into a rough shape first, hinting at what the final product may be, but never eliciting any real detail. Their’s is a work of constant refinement, of slowly magnifying their focus to concentrate on smaller and smaller details, until the final masterpiece is unveiled.
It made me realise, that a first draft of a any piece of writing is the discovery stage. It is about finding and setting free the story trapped within my mind. It is a first incarnation, born without sophistication, yet with a direction and sense of purpose. And it is from the first draft that we can begin to understand this beast that is our story and better understand what it needs to mature. For writers, like sculptors, this additional refinement is (as August Rodin noted) a simple matter of chopping off what we don’t need.