Having just finished the 10th draft of our new novel MASKS—more yet to be done but this is basically it—I’m in that flounder stage. I have an idea of what’s next, but haven’t quite yet chomped onto the earthworm and got myself hooked. It’ll happen soon, I fear, but there’s time for a quick swig of air.
Meantime, I’m going back to what was a frequent practice: daily spans of free writing by hand in my notebook. Most times I have no idea what I’m going to write: I face a blank slate in my head. . . . The cat is trying to bark. . . . I sit beside a stranger I will never know: myself. My handwriting is nearly illegible, and sometimes the content as well, but I trudge on through at least a page, and sometimes I’m amazed at the genius or drivel emerging.
It’s a useful way to break out of the EDIT mindset, that slow stalking of perfection that pervades the later drafts of anything—a necessary stage but fatal at the outset of a project. As with anything, it’s a constant see-saw between Freedom and Control. It’s taken me maybe 60 years to learn that balance in the art of theatre; in starting to write fiction—well, not entirely starting, as this is our seventh novel—the process begins anew.
This new draft, I think, is a breakthru in that old literary saw, Show, don’t tell. Telling is delineating what happened, how your hero looks or smells, etc., and some of that is fine. Show means bringing your reader into the presence of the event—as theatre does by its very nature, except in shows that fall into endless narrative monologs. With MASKS, each draft has made an advance in different ways, but all more substantive than just decisions on commas or finding a juicier verb.
It occurs to me that my life has been a series of redrafts. Nothing as dramatic as the crash-and-recover that pervades movie stars’ bios or as cliched as staid-prof-finds-new-love, but still fairly dramatic in my own Midwestern way. It may be that all stories are about redrafts of lives and the slow, lifetime discovery of your own true voice. The two of us have been blest in having each other as mates: somehow accepting that process of change in one another. We weren’t born that way, and some of our quarrels have been more volcanic than anything we’ve done on stage. But somehow we’ve stumbled through the jungle and the pigpen and the maze toward that concept from Robert Heinlein: Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.