I just got back from an incredibly productive week out in Western Massachusetts at Wellspring House, working on the first (well, first and a half) major revision of my novel. I like rewriting and revising infinitely more than first-drafting, which I find akin to squeezing blood from a stone.
I mean, in the first draft you have to make stuff up. Out of thin air! It’s ridiculous. There are far too many choices to be made, far too much freedom. I know that some writers find the first draft phase exhilarating, but I find it intimidating. Exhausting. Emotionally taxing.
When I’m revising, on the other hand, at least I have something to work with. Even if I end up totally rejecting and reworking everything I’ve done up to that point (which is pretty close to how things have been going) at least I don’t feel like I’m groping around in the dark.
There’s a famous quote by E.L. Doctorow: “(Writing) is like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
It’s true, and I think about it — and reassure myself with it — often. But I also know that I kind of hate driving at night on really dark roads.
To use another metaphor (my own) First drafts, to me, feel like digging clay up out of a riverbank with my bare hands. The subsequent drafts are the sculpting. And sculpting is much more interesting than digging.
I can revise for hours on end. I literally had some 11-hour writing days this past week. I could never, ever stomach that much first-drafting in a day. (Ugh. Gross. Ptooey.) I worked for so long, so continuously that my butt hurt. For real! (I have a portable standing desk thingy to prevent such work hazards, but forgot to bring it.)
I did, however, take one afternoon off. I drove up to my old college stomping grounds in the northwesternmost corner of Massachusetts to visit MASS moCA. One of the exhibits I enjoyed the most was a three-floor Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Retrospective.
I’d heard of LeWitt, and seen his work — there’s one at my alma mater’s art museum up the road from MASS moCA– but I’d never fully understood or appreciated his strange genius until I went to this exhibit and saw so many of his works all together in one place. (And: forgive me, any art afficionados out there reading this post. I suspect it’s like the equivalent of me going up to an English professor and being like Hey! I just discovered this guy Shakespeare! Have you heard of him? He’s amazing!)
So, here’s the deal with Sol LeWitt’s work in case you’re not familiar with him: In most cases, he doesn’t execute his works himself. He gives instructions to other people on how to execute them. “So he’s not really an artist,” Elsa, our family artist in residence, responded when I explained this to her. And maybe other artists think this about LeWitt too. But he is! A conceptual artist. A really bossy conceptual artist!
Here are some instructions for one of his wall drawings:
And here is the result (as executed at MASS moCA):
Obviously, every time the drawing is produced somewhere, it will look slightly different, based on the first wavy line gets drawn, and the precision / skill / quirks of each artist who adds the subsequent lines. Some of his instructions are much more open to interpretation than this one, while others are much more precise.
I just loved thinking about his notion that art can be like a musical composition or a play, interpreted and executed in an infinite variety of ways while still remaining true to the essence of the work.
And I also found myself wondering: Could writing work this way? Certainly there are formulae (fancy plural there) and conventions for types of fiction (romance, mystery, etc.), poetic forms (sonnets, sestinas, haiku), etc. But nothing nearly as prescriptive or exacting as the instructions for LeWitt’s drawings.
On the way home from the museum, I was making myself giggle thinking about LeWitt-esque writing exercises…
Two writers should write a five-thousand word short story set in Iceland, alternating word by word (First writer writes the first word, second writes the second, first writes the third word and so on), using blue pen, in a spiral bound notebook (College Ruled). None of the words can be adjectives except one, and it must be a synonym for “nice.” Write this word in black pen.
Write a limerick about a man from Nantucket, but DO NOT rhyme “Nantucket” with you-know-what. Or that other thing. You know what I’m talking about. Mention Martha’s Vineyard in the limerick also.
Write the word “canoe” over and over again in red ballpoint pen on the back of a business card until it stops making sense. Send it to the New Yorker fiction submissions editor.
Write a 1000-word short-short story in MS Word, double-spaced, Palatino 12 pt. font, that begins with the word “Grapes” and ends with “maybe?” In the third paragraph, include the following sentence: “Nobody understood why he’d sold the canary for so little.” Change the font size halfway through. Just to fuck with people.
Write a 200-word prose poem about your father, using a quill pen and India ink. Do not use any words that include the letter T or the “schwa” sound. When you’re done, scribble over it and hand it to a passerby.
It would be so much more fun — and so much easier — than what, as writers, we actually do — and what I’m in the midst of doing right now:
Write a book concerning [X, Y, & Z]. Make it as good as you can. Go back and make it better. Go back and make it better again. Pray that someone will want to publish it, and that people will want to read it. Try not to become derailed by crippling self doubt along the way.
But, since I don’t have a writerly Sol LeWitt providing instructions, it’s what I must do. And apparently I find it satisfying and meaningful in some deep and elemental way. Otherwise I don’t know why in God’s name I would subject myself to it.