photo by Martin Howard
by Loree Westron
In a recent THRESHOLDS article, Lynda Nash commented about the need for students to understand that redrafting is an essential part of the writing process and that none of us get our stories down on paper as we wish to see them the first time around. In my experience, students often view the beginning stages of story writing as the most exciting. Inspiration and those early sparks of creativity offer boundless opportunities for the creation of something new, something original and self-expressive, and first drafts can be a great adventure in which many surprising discoveries are made. Redrafting on the other hand is far less glamorous, and is frequently approached as a chore rather than a pleasure.
I try to encourage students to treat the first draft as a kind of reconnaissance mission in which the main purpose is to check out the terrain and learn about their characters. To me, first drafts are all about gathering information and experimenting with an idea. Often it’s only after the third or fourth draft that the real story begins to emerge.
I believe that story writing is a craft which requires patience, perseverance and faith, and was therefore curious about David Vann’s comments about redrafting during his March 2011 Q&A session with THRESHOLDS. When asked about his own process Vann stated: ‘my final drafts are almost identical to my first drafts. “Ichthyology” had one paragraph cut and one added. Caribou Island had only a few paragraphs of background info added, and line edits. I was always told writing is mostly revision, but for me, the work lives or dies in the first draft.’ Vann also teaches Creative Writing, and I’m sure he’s very much aware of the impact those words will have on student writers. I wish now that I had asked him to elaborate on his process because I’m certain there’s much more taking place during the construction of his ‘first drafts’ than he let on.
Many writers would disagree with Vann’s views on drafting. Ernest Hemingway famously claimed that ‘all first drafts are shit’. Raymond Carver, arguably the most successful short story writer of the 20th century, is said to have completed 20-30 drafts before handing his stories over to Gordon Lish. And Alice Munro claims to do as many as 80 drafts before she’s satisfied enough to let the story go. The consensus is that redrafting is not to be ignored.
I wonder, though, if our definition of ‘drafts’ has changed since the advent of the personal computer. In the old days, when I started writing, a draft was produced on a typewriter. You pulled it out of the roller at the back of the machine and annotated the pages by hand. Then the whole thing was retyped from scratch to produce the next draft. Now, however, many writers write, redraft and edit before they ever produce a hardcopy of their story, and rather than saving all the changes as individual documents, simply overwrite the previous version and press ‘Save’. In my own process, I tinker incessantly with syntax and descriptions and dialogue, and I may go over a single paragraph twenty times before moving on to the next. Finally, when I’m done, I’ll print the story and call it ‘Draft One’ – even though it’s already gone through a substantial amount of re-writing.
I find that I need these paper drafts in order to fully see the structure of my stories (often laying the pages out on the floor so that I can see everything at once). If the structure needs work, I cut and paste the old-fashioned way, physically moving the pieces around until I’m reasonably happy that the new structure works. Then it’s back to the computer screen to put the changes into effect, followed by further tinkering with syntax, description, dialogue, and now links, before printing out ‘Draft Two’.
Students might point to Vann’s apparent dismissal of the need for redrafting as justification for their own resistance to re-working their stories, just as they currently point to Cormac McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation to justify their lack of commas and apostrophes. I’m convinced, however, that Vann does carefully redraft his work, by one method or another.
Vann began writing Legend of a Suicide when he was nineteen years old, nearly a decade after his father’s death, and finished ten years later. He will, no doubt, have spent much of his childhood constructing stories to explain this traumatic event and it seems likely that this process continued once he began putting pen to paper. The drafting and redrafting may simply have taken place internally, allowing the stories to emerge fully-formed.
How then to explain Caribou Island which took a mere five months to write? There is a question I will continue to ponder as I encourage my students to redraft their work.