My brain likes to worry things, to mull, to take it’s time sorting through the vast card catalogs to find just the right references, sources, ideas. In this instantaneous age the card catalog image is totally appropriate as sometimes things get lodged there for a long time before the right bi-sociative moment comes along. Suze calls it my “sticky brain” because of all the little things that seem to be stuck there forever.
Like the fact that I vividly can recall cigarette commercials and their jingles from television ads. Those ads went off he air by law in 1971. Yeah, television is a dangerous place for my brain to be hanging out.
One thought has been lingering like a low-grade fever lately, and it has to do with my writing process. That mysterious process creatives have that they can never answer to anyone’s (much less their own) satisfaction about where ideas come from, how they are shaped, created, molded. When you look at something and see the finished work all that’s visible is what the artist/writer/composer didn’t remove. A sculpture is the part of the stone left behind. A painting has only the top-most layers visible. A book all the words that survived the line edits.
What I’ve been thinking about is the raw material, the first form the manuscript takes as the brain attempts to render ideas and images and feelings into formal sentences and plot structure. Painters may build directly on their canvas, building layer upon layer, but the original cartoons are buried beneath the paint. Similarly, while we can visit a previous draft of a writer important enough to have their papers preserved, what we see in the final form is usually all we get. We can examine for what is visible — plot and character and theme — but we cannot see its original form from the final version.
I once heard writer Jamaica Kincaid explain that she could not commit a word to page until she was sure of its order and placement, that she wrote front-to-back manuscripts and rarely did more than one complete draft with few edits. All her drafts, all her pre-writing and mistakes, missteps and floundering, all that took place in her head!
Boy, that’s not me.
What is me is the guy who has to get it down on paper to see what sort of shape it is to begin with. Then I have to compare it with the original schematics to see what went wrong along the way and decide which parts to keep and which to get rid of. Sometimes whole chapters disappear, or are collapsed into another place, or get shuffled around. Sometimes paragraphs are rewritten and rewritten until they finally take a shape that feels right. Occasionally I get it mostly right the first time, and that’s when I fool myself into believing I’m a real writer.
But I was thinking recently about drawing, and about cartoons, and eventually made my way back to an interview I read a long time ago with Art Spiegelman, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel Maus. I was surprised when reading it that this master of visual economy had to work as hard as he did to find the line, to make the line as strong and as simple as he did. After making a layout sketch (essentially an outline) he would build up the images in each panel using a yellow colored pencil. This would give him the freedom to block the scene, place the key components, and play loosely with their relative size and placement. Then he would go back in with an orange pencil. Then a brown pencil. Building until he reached a point where he felt he could lay down the black ink that would set the final drawing in place. Each time he changed colors he tightened the line, found the right weight, added the key detail, or dropped extraneous information from a previous layer. In essence, he was line editing.
Ah, more than a play on words.
Spiegelman knew the strength of his lines would hold the visual key, the way a sentence holds the informational component necessary for the story at large. It was in this process, and the messiness of those earlier layers, that I understood not so much what I was doing but what my problem has been with process.
You see, I have always hated my early drafts. My first drafts especially leave me feeling as if I am only fooling myself. Even as bits and pieces tumble into place and give me temporary hope, I am always left wanting to ditch the unfinished manuscript until such time I can come back and do it right. But I have been in total denial about the fact that the “right” draft can only come about through the layering. I cannot have the expectation that the yellow-line draft is going to convey exactly what I want in the final version. I shouldn’t pre-judge these awkward and fledgling sentences desperately trying to make it on their own before their eyes are open, before they can support their own weight.
So I need to remember this over the weekend as I plow through new pages and try to haul my ideas back toward the outline. I need to remember this isn’t going to an editor, it’s going to an advisor who is helping me see where the lines are weakest and where they are strongest.
I think I need to find a yellow pencil and tape it to the keyboard as a reminder.