Saturday, April 29, 2017

Is There Still Such a Thing as a "Draft" of a Piece of Writing?

I would call a “draft” of a literary work any version that is finished in a preliminary way. Usually, writers create multiple drafts of a work before they consider it finished.

But do “drafts” still exist in the digital age, when new versions are rarely printed out? For longer works, certainly. For a work such as a novel or a book of nonfiction, a draft can take years to create or revise. A novelist or nonfiction writer may spend a year or two writing the first draft, ask for comments from writer friends, work on a second draft for a year more, send the text to an agent, and spend months working on a third draft that incorporates the agent’s comments. That is a fairly typical writing process for full-length prose works.

But for shorter works, such as poems, short stories, or blogs, drafts have almost ceased to exist in the digital age. The concept of a draft dates back to the pre-digital era, when you had to write or type everything by hand, and every draft existed on a separate sheet or sheets of paper. But even in those bad old days, each draft had notes that were scrawled in the margins or between lines, Inserts A and B added on extra pages, etc. So one “draft” was in reality many drafts.

For shorter works, such as a poem or a blog, every time you open a file, make a change, and hit Save, you’ve created a new draft. There is rarely such a thing as a draft anymore in the old sense of a newly printed or handwritten copy. Or rather, every version, even a digitally printed version, is actually a draft, since it so easy to change text even once it has been published, if it’s online.

What does this mean for writers of short works, that there are no longer drafts, or that works are perpetually in progress? On the one hand, it gives a writer a sense of freedom that s/he can make changes so easily. It’s as if a sculptor could work in magical clay that’s perpetually wet and never dries until you want it to. There’s much greater fluidity and flexibility now for writers, and that situation is highly conducive to creativity, which usually requires experimentation.

On the other hand, with text being so fluid, there is little incentive to polish writing to perfection. Rarely is a version considered final. There’s also not the same sense of progressive steps in the writing process. There is no longer physical evidence of the various stages that a work has undergone, the way there used to be a paper trail of all the drafts of a poem, for example.


Is it a good thing that writers now work in a much more fluid medium, where it’s easier to make changes, but more difficult to see a work as final, as finished? I’m not sure it’s better, but it certainly is a different process for writers of short works. In a way those changes mirror what has happened in the realm of relationships—there is much more fluidity now in relationships than there has been in recent centuries, but there is less of a sense of each stage of courtship, with the progression of steps leading to a final resolution.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Problem for a Writer of Having Too Many Talents and Interests

Many people in the arts have numerous talents and interests. In addition to writing, you might enjoy quilting, or playing an instrument, or you might be a good painter or dancer. In some ways it’s a blessing to enjoy numerous arts, in some ways it’s a problem.

In my early twenties I studied many different arts and crafts. I took classes and learned some skills from friends. I enrolled in a pottery class where I tried to master the skill of knowing how a glaze would look after it was fired. I sketched models from life endlessly, trying to perfect my technique with a charcoal crayon. I even had a business with my friend Flip tying macramé purses and chokers.

I was also writing and at the same time translating French poets during this period, but my role models were artists who did not specialize in one art. I admired William Blake, who created engravings to go with his poems, and DanteGabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who wrote poems to accompany his paintings.

Rossetti's poem, "The Blessed Damozel," illustration by Kenneth Cox
Even though writing and literature excited me, like many people in the arts, I didn’t want to be strapped down to one discipline. In my case, this was partly because my father had been a widely published writer of short stories and reviews, and I didn’t want to be measured against the yardstick of his success.

At this time I was also taking classes in modern dance and ballet at the gym of my college, working at the barre in not weather with sweat gushing down my brow. (Some ballet teachers can be tougher than marine drill sergeants!). I was making pretty decent progress, and being the only male in most classes, I got a lot of attention.

Then one day, a new person entered the dance classes: Berat. He was an engineering student from Turkey, and he had never had much formal instruction in dance. Berat’s progress was amazing. He took every possible class he could fit into the schedule of his engineering studies, always arriving early or staying late to work in the mirror to check his form on the pliés. In a few months, Berat had surpassed all the other students. He was a natural. One day, Berat was gone. I asked the teacher what had happened to him. She said Berat had moved to New York, where he had auditioned for a dance company that was interested in hiring him, if he took a few more classes.

That made me pause. Yes, I was fairly good at modern dance, pottery, macramé,life drawing. But was I progressing at a pace that would allow me to make an original and professional contribution to the art, the kind of pace Berat had set? In every case, I had to answer no. Except possibly in writing.

Writing was the one art I was trying to avoid. But writing came naturally to me. I had to work at it, and work incredibly hard, but I was continually moving forward in my practice of the craft. I couldn’t say that about the other arts I was dabbling in. I was spreading myself thin, and as a result, nothing I was doing in any art or craft had much depth. 

I realized that I wanted to be an artist not just for fun—though it was great fun when it went well, more fun than anything else I’d done. I wanted to be an artist to make a contribution to the river of culture, and even if that contribution was only a few drops, I wanted it to be the best I could give. I saw that I would have to specialize to get good enough to make an original contribution that might have a chance of mattering to others, not just to myself and a few friends.

Even within the literary arts, a writer has to specialize. Yes, there are some authors who can write plays, poems, short stories, novels, libretti, and more. But not many. Most of us have to specialize in order to get good at a genre. Again, it’s partly what comes naturally, and partly what you want to work at. 

I don’t know if Berat ever became a professional dancer in New York. But I admire that he tried to make the grade, that he knew right away that dance was the discipline he needed to focus on. That type of single-minded focus doesn’t come easy to many creative people, who by nature like to experiment,. But that kind of focus often makes the difference between a dilettante and an artist. 
  
Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration