Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Marvelling at the Old Time Authors

Spend any time in writer training, either in real life or on line, and you will hear some variation of this as the process for writing good material.

1. Write
2. Revise
3. Repeat step 2 until it is perfect.

Authors are encouraged to write as fast as they can. Get it down on paper (or on the screen). Don't worry about the quality--that's what revisions are for. When you finish the full piece, go back and revise, revise, revise and make it a quality product. Revise it some more to take out all your bad habits and enhance those good habits you don't have yet. Revise some more. Perfect it. Edit it as many times as necessary to make it perfect. Almost everyone who teaches or coaches writers advocate this type of approach or something similar.

This is easy in the computer era. Successive revisions on a screen cost nothing but the electricity to run the machine, and it was probably running anyway. Occasional printouts have a cost of paper and toner, but printing fast-draft on re-used paper even reduces this cost. We have become a generation of writers who tend to write first and think later. Somehow out of this brain to fingers process we wind up with a finished product, hopefully a good piece--no, an excellent piece--no, a perfect piece.

My recent reading among writers of generations past has led me to think about how they approached writing. What about in the typewriter era, with all the cut and paste and re-typing? What about in the pre-typewriter era, when everything was written, and each revision meant a rewrite, at a time when ink and paper was more expensive than today? What about in ancient times, say at the time of Jesus Christ, when paper was papyrus, ink was soot mixed with water, and pens were quills or worse? Surely the ancients, and the moderately-distant past writers followed a different approach. They must have spent a lot more time forming the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in their heads--an inexpensive medium, those gray cells--before putting anything on paper.

When Emerson put these words on paper in 1834 with his own hand, how many drafts did he go through?

Believe then that the harp and ear are formed by one revolution of the wheel; that men are waiting to hear your epical song; and so be pleased to skip those excursive involved glees, and give us the simple air, without the volley of variations.

And, when Carlyle wrote this back the same year, did he think first and write later, or the other way around?

Poor Teufelsdrockh!--Creature of mischance, miscalculation, and thousand-fold obstruction! Here nevertheless he is, as you see; has struggled across the Stygian marshes, and now, as a stiched pamplet "for Friends" cannot be burnt or lost before his time.

These were just in letters between the two, and yet the writing is excellent, full of wit and wisdom, full of erudition. Such did not come from spilling their guts onto successive pieces of paper, but from churning words in the brain over a period of years. You might say these men are not typical of the writers of their day, but sit on the shoulders of all others. Perhaps so. But I wonder how much their process of writing (think, churn, write, revise, send) made them so.

My point? I don't know that I have one; just pondering about how we have changed. I began a new writing project Sunday night (as if I'm not trying too many things now), and spent the time Sunday in reading for research and putting concepts on paper. I did a little of the same on Monday, then went to the computer and followed the write fast method, getting as much on disc as I could. When I read it tonight or tomorrow, will I see the makings of something good, or simple rot-gut?

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