Whether I’m writing fiction, a class essay, or an article for publication, I find the first draft to be the most difficult. Not because I’m far from finishing, but because I don’t yet know the story I’m about to tell. Sure, I can add words, construct a narrative, edit a line here and there, but until it’s done, I don’t know the story. But that’s when the fun begins. When I’m done, and have finally heard the story for the first time, I get to revisit it from the beginning and finish molding it into what it needs to be–not what I imagined it to be. These two concepts are not necessarily one in the same, and for good reason. Let me explain.
Sitting in as many creative fiction seminars, writers workshops, and college writing courses as I have, I’ve heard a lot of silly shit about the creative process. “You can’t have a crazy protagonist.” “I don’t understand the metaphor, so it’s wrong.” “Women don’t have regular OBGYN exams.” If you’ve taken an undergrad course in creative writing, you know I am not exaggerating. But one “crazy” bit of advice I’ve heard in nearly every setting, has been to listen to your characters, because they’ll tell you who they are and what they want. Sounded absolutely whackadoo the first time I heard this pearl of wisdom. The notion that a fictional being–who exists solely within my mind and has never seen the light of day–could possibly have thoughts and motivations without my knowledge was preposterous. It sounded like a writer’s lazy excuse for not being able to execute a character properly. Besides, my character was well planned and given purpose; his future predicated by my whim and fancy alone. How could he possibly whisper me and start making demands? I controlled the key strokes. I was the boss. I was all powerful. Yet, when I told him to do as I commanded, he refused. Turns out he wasn’t as big a fan of me as I was.
After it happened the first time, all those crazies I’d encountered over the years gained a sliver of credibility. And in my epiphany of what I thought to be an excuse for poor performance, I saw the truth for what it was: Writing is not storytelling.
Ugh, another grandiose statement–I know. But I swear it’s true. Writing, in the immediate sense, anyway, is not storytelling–it’s story creating. It’s not until the story is created that we can tell the story (This guy likes pointing out the obvious, what a pretentious douche bag–you’re right, I’m a bit cuntish). The story we have in mind isn’t necessarily the story we wind up with, though, is it? Sure, it resembles the basic original outline; the protagonist is loosely based on the initial concept; the conflict is more dynamic once pen was put to paper. However, when we sit down to read the final final FINAL copy.doc, it’s not what we imagined when we started. Because the idea of the story isn’t the story itself. Through writing, though, we craft the narrative and give the characters room to blossom and follow their own paths. We listen to our character; discuss with our protagonist how he would act in a given situation. And once that asshole is done being so damn belligerent (and right) about everything, we take his advice when we tell his journey and allow him to make his own decisions. Once he’s allowed to make the necessary decisions, we can follow the repercussions to their logical conclusions. Once we’ve done that, we’re ready to stop writing, and start storytelling.
The rest of the process is a matter of touching up the mistakes we’ve made along the way. Catching those naughty grammatical errors, tense shifts, and incongruities, and taking them over our knee. Most importantly, though, we’ve now created a story we can tell.
The way I see it, the first time we write something, we’re telling ourselves the story for the first time. Once we’ve discovered what’s happened, then we can spice it up, slap some polish on it, and drive it home for the reader.
There is an allure to writing and storytelling. They are inherently human, and are what separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom–yet they’re what bind us as a species. If you ask me, there is nothing more beautiful than that.