Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination

The Seductive First Draft

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I’ve been cleaning off my desk. It took longer than I thought, but these few weeks since I sent my manuscript to my agent have been fraught with minor illness and unexpected delays. Among the piles I found several half started articles, a couple of nearly finished essays, and a bunch of handwritten, spontaneous fictional sketches that I never even bothered to type into the computer. Most of them will never get farther than they are. Or perhaps in a fit of inspiration, I’ll finish them one by one and then pray that they’ll be read one day beyond the light of my office window.

There’s something seductive about that first inspiration, the idea for a story or essay or novel that comes to you in a flash. It shines in the mind like a brilliant, newborn star, or hangs just out of reach like succulent fruit waiting to be picked.

It is an illusion. Beware.

Those first words rush forth from you, brilliant, masterful. Then there’s the delving into research, all the planning, all those outlines for characters that will soon spring to life. But then, the blank page. How to become God on the last day of creation? All the supports are in place – the sun has risen, the moon set. The land and sea have been parted. The animals all roam among luxuriant forests or grassy, verdant plains. But how – how, indeed, to create a man? Or a woman? Or a child? Or a dog for that matter, someone or something that has light behind its eyes? That has thoughts and feelings and reasons for their words, if they have words at all? But then, you’ll need reasons for that, too, and a unique way of expressing them.

Slowly, I say. Slowly. Take your time.

About thirty pages in – or fifty, if you’re lucky – that first flush of momentum starts to slow down and the blank page doesn’t fill quite as smoothly as before. You discover on page 54 that indeed, the main character CAN’T come from a religious family because his attitudes are all wrong. Unless he’s a rebel. Yes, perhaps he’s a rebel. But then, you’ll have to go back and fix all that stuff about his blind devotion on page 27.

It goes on like that until somewhere around page 150 or 200, you start to understand the underlying themes of your own work. You’d written down ideas like that before: the overarching purpose, the inner life that drives your characters. But now you see that all of that was misguided, and the basic premise was both much simpler and much more complicated. So you start making notes, long notes, often incomprehensible, about what you must change, and ways to fill in the gaps you never even realized were there. And those notes fill a document or a wire-bound notebook, so you know you’ll have to go through them and think them out again. And while reviewing them one day, you’ll notice an uncomfortable number of brilliant contradictions.

Writing is not like life. It doesn’t roll forward of its own accord, any which way, whether you want it to or not. It must be wheedled and cajoled, shaped and fashioned to serve the vision of its master.

So if God’s really up there revising that epic book for the 5769th time, then take heart. He or she hasn’t gotten it right yet. So why should you, or I?

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Author: Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

2 thoughts on “The Seductive First Draft

  1. I wish I could have said it so well! Inspiring and heartening! love, Stephanie

  2. Reading this warmed my heart so! I’ve heard you talk about these things, but it feels different reading them. You’re only a few blogs in and I’m already itching for your non-fiction book about writing! Bring it on, Judy. We newbie writers need to hear that it isn’t as easy as you seasoned authors make it look.

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