Every written project I have ever completed started with a leap of faith that I would be able to do it because I had done it before. But that faith often (maybe always) wavered after I jumped into the project–sometimes as soon as my metaphorical feet left the metaphorical ground. When this happened I turned to free-writing to discover that I had something to say after all and I could stop panicking. Nevertheless, as a graduate student I often experienced frustration and disappointment with my writing even after it began to take a vague shape. Being a non-Stoic, I tended to share this frustration and disappointment with my colleagues and my advisors. One of those advisors, Richard Schoch of Queen Mary College, used to remind me from time to time that all writing is re-writing. I liked to quote Richard when reassuring my frustrated and disappointed writing students, elaborating on his advice by adding my version: good writing does not spring fully-formed from our minds like Athena did from Zeus’s.
Early drafts of my academic writing almost never came out easily. I felt that I was coaxing, dragging, or pulling each draft of each paper or chapter out of my brain and into my computer. But once I managed to get the first drafts written and I actually knew what I was writing about, I knew what I needed to write next. And, more exciting to me, I could see where I could begin doing the shaping; I saw where I needed to develop the thoughts in each paragraph with more thoroughly explained evidence and how I could untangle confusing syntax and make my argument stronger with well-developed and clearly crafted sentences. I also saw where sections could be or had to be cut. Then, as I got closer to finishing the project, I began the refining work. Once I got to the final stages of writing my dissertation, for example, I could spend an entire day working on one sentence. And I LOVED it.
While I was often overwhelmed by the difficulty of writing as a student, I am astounded and delighted by the sheer volume of work that I have produced recently just by letting my pen fly across the page. I have three long(ish) stories in draft form, written purely as free-writing exercises. As I have written about before, these stories seemed to be waiting in my mind for an invitation to be told. But, just like my work for graduate school, these stories did not spring fully-formed from my brain. Now I’m getting to the re-writing and re-working process where I know I will find holes in the narratives and characters that need more depth and dimension. I am sure I will find many awkward sentences to smooth into, I hope, elegant phrases. In other words, now the fun begins.
I’m not completely sure why I find restructuring sentences so thrilling and picking just the right word so deeply satisfying. I think it has something to do with my desire for clarity, for understanding the world better. Or maybe it is just about beauty or my subjective idea of the beautiful. Then again, in an earlier draft of this essay, I gave Richard’s advice another interpretation: I don’t have to worry about the shape of my early writing because, if all writing is re-writing, then I have plenty of time to fix it. I think that comes closer to explaining why I love the re-writing part of writing–the craft of writing–so much. I don’t have to get it right the first time. I need to be reminded, frequently, of that fact. I also need to be reminded that it is okay to spend an entire day sculpting one sentence. My drive to produce so often hurries me along, but the craft of writing slows me down, inviting me to linger lovingly, even greedily, over my words and phrases, those imperfect but gorgeous children of my mind.