Think about the last time you went for a hike or a walk around your neighborhood. You probably set out with a specific plan; maybe you had a route mapped out, a particular amount of time reserved, a good idea of what you would likely see and hear. You wore clothing appropriate for your adventure—maybe hiking boots if the trail was steep or muddy, a rain parka if the sky looked foreboding.
Did your hike or walk turn out exactly as you expected? Did anything out of the ordinary happen along the way? Maybe the sun came out and you had to peel off the rain parka. Maybe you spotted a side trail, decided to explore it, and discovered a hidden pond at the bottom of a small hill. You sat on a large, flat rock at the edge of the pond and breathed in the fresh air, which smelled of mud and pine, and noticed a small turtle sunning itself on a fallen branch. You watched the turtle for a while and noticed how its head was turned up toward the sky. Then, without notice, the turtle slipped off the branch and into the water with a gentle “blip,” leaving a small, circular wake that slowly spread before dissipating.
Or maybe, you stayed closer to home, walking around your block. You waved to a neighbor who was outside tending some roses that had been planted against a white fence in their front garden. You stopped to say hello only to discover how downtrodden they looked; she had recently suffered a tragedy in her family. You expressed your condolences and gave her a hug, offered to help any way you could, and made a mental note to stop by later with fresh-baked cookies.
In neither of these scenarios did your hike or walk turn out exactly the way you expected. In fact, it became a richer experience because you were willing to stop and look around, or deviate from your expected path. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and . . . "*
The same is usually true in the craft of writing, and many writers (including me) often forget this. We set out with an idea of what we've planned to write, then get stuck when we stick too closely to that predetermined path. Before we’ve gotten very far at all, we start worrying about whether our sentences or paragraphs are “good” and start lamenting that what we've written isn’t working. We stare blankly at a page with just a few words on it because we’ve shackled our minds with restrictions and expectations.
Some writers draft once (perhaps from an outline), and that’s it. Those who can do this certainly have my admiration. For most writers, however, this approach doesn’t work. Instead, we have to give ourselves permission to create what Anne Lamott dubbed the “sh*tty first draft.” Freewriting is a wonderful way to do this—just write for a period of time, not allowing yourself to stop even when the words don’t seem to be flowing, and don’t worry about the shape or meaning of what you write. Not yet. Don’t even worry about the grammar or the spelling. Just let your mind connect to the page through your fingers, let it wander through your thoughts or your memories or your plot, and see what happens. See where it takes you. You might be surprised to discover that not only have you spent your time actually writing, you’ve found a new approach to your topic or idea, or maybe your idea has completely changed. You’ve given your mind permission to explore, and by doing so you’ve stumbled upon something that’s deeper, more interesting, or more inspiring to you than your original concept.
Once you’ve found what you’re looking for, whether it’s the “theme,” the structure, the voice, or some plot twist of your piece, you can go back and start draft two—where you start thinking more seriously about shaping your text. Some writers go through this process with many, many drafts over many, many months before they hit that moment when they just know they have it “right.” Even then, months or even a year later when they dust off that old draft, they might find something new to say or change.
The writing process is, of course, different for every writer. What’s important, I think, is to take the pressure off yourself to be perfect every time, right from the first draft. Now and then you might get lucky and write a piece that will require little editing the first time you sit down with it at your desk (or with your notebook outside, or at the kitchen table, or wherever you write). But for most writers, most of the time, it takes numerous drafts to perfect a piece of writing.
So, when you sit down for the first time with a topic or a character or a plot, why not set your mind free? My guess is it will be well worth the unexpected journey.
*Frost, R. The Road Not Taken. Bartleby.com. web. http://www.bartleby.com/119/1.html Accessed October 21, 2014. 4
@2014 Faye Rapoport DesPres
Faye Rapoport DesPres has spent much of her writing career as a journalist and business/non-profit writer. In 2010 she earned her MFA from Pine Manor College, where she focused on creative nonfiction.
Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Animal Life, Trail, Timberline and other publications. Her personal essays, fiction, and poetry have been published in Ascent, Superstition Review, and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, as well as other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Currently, DesPres is an adjunct first-year writing instructor at Lasell College. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and their rescued cats. Message from a Blue Jay -- Love, Loss, and One Writer's Journey Home is her first book.
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