Friday, November 17, 2006

Samuel Delany on Doubt and the Writing Process

Samuel Delany on doubt and the writing process:

     A unique process begins when the writer lowers the pen to put words on paper—or taps out letters on to the page with typewriter keys. Certainly writers think about and plan stories beforehand; and certainly, after writing a few stories, you may plan them or think about them in a more complex way. But even this increased complexity is likely to grow out of the process of which I’m speaking. The fact is almost everyone thinks about stories. Many even get to the point of planning them. But the place where the writer’s experience differs from everyone else’s is during the writing process itself. What makes this process unique has directly to do with the doubting.
     You picture the beginning of a story. (Anyone can do that.) You try to describe it. (And anyone can try.) Your mind offers up a word, or three, or a dozen. (It’s not much different from what happens when you write a friend in a letter what you did yesterday morning.) You write the words down, the first, the second, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh—suddenly you doubt.
     You sense clutter, or thinness, or cliché.
     You are now on the verge of a process that happens only in the actual writing of a text.
     If the word you doubted is among those already written down, you can cross it out. If it’s among the words you’re about to write, you can say to yourself, “No, not that one,” and either go on without it, or wait for some alternative to come. The act of refusing to put down words, or crossing out words already down, while you concentrate on the vision you are writing about, makes new words come. What’s more, when you refuse language your mind offers up, something happens to the next batch offered. The words are not the same ones that would have come if you hadn’t doubted.
     The differences will probably have little or nothing to do with your plot, or the overall story shape—though they might. There will probably be much to reject among the new batch too. But making these changes the moment they are perceived keeps the tale curving inward toward its own energy. When you make the corrections at the time, the next words that come up will be richer—richer both in things to accept and to reject.

(From Samuel R. Delany, “Of Doubts and Dreams” in About Writing: 7 essays, 4 letters, and 5 interviews (2006).)

I have sometimes thought that my compulsion to revise as I go is a flaw in my writing process, that I ought to train myself to draft now and revise later and thereby become more prolific. Delany’s marvellous essay on doubt as a crucial part of the writing process suggests otherwise. I’m really struck by his idea that revising as you go doesn’t only change what you’ve already written; it changes what you will write next, and changes it for the better. Rather than slowing you down, it takes you in a new direction. Perhaps it’s time to put more faith in my doubt…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He's absolutely right. This is certainly how I write. And I think that the fact that many (most?) writers now compose their works directly on PCs means that more and more writers work this way - it's so much easier on a PC to "try" a word, a phrase, an entire paragraph, then backspace and try something different. This iterative process has, for many writers, replaced the drafting process. Where previously, writing a novel (for all but those mystically inspired writers able to spew perfect prose directly onto the paper) was a laborious process of producing multiple manuscript versions, each one reflecting the crossings-out, corrections, additions and amendments scribbled on to the previous manuscript, now it is quite feasible, even for the average writer, to complete a "first" draft - a single Word document, or one per chapter, for example - which is also more or less the final draft (at least until the editors get their hands on it). Of course, this also implies a major loss to future literary scholars interested in understanding how a writer writes - unless he has mastered the art of versioning, there is no longer likely to be any trace of the creative effect of his doubt as it shapes his work.