I usually do the first draft of everything the old-fashioned way, with pen and legal pad. And it isn’t that I’m uncomfortable with a keyboard, touch typing is probably the most useful thing I learned in high school, and I can cook along at a pretty good rate, but therein, I think, lies the problem. Speed is not my friend, not in first draft. I know, I know, ‘first drafts are all shit, just get it down, you can mess with it later,’ yeah, there’s some truth to that. Your first draft is your raw material, though, and I think the quality of your raw material has a lot to do with the quality of your finished product. And writing, when you break it down, is about the art of crafting sentences. Am I really crafting anything at 75 words per minute, or whatever my number is? Not really. I’m hammering along, baby, I’m banging it out, I’m ripping… And in general there isn’t anything wrong with what I write at that speed. It’s okay. It’s not horrible.
Not horrible don’t cut it.
When I write longhand I am forced to slow down, and I think that changes the process considerably. I tend to think more deeply about what I really want to say, and how I want to say it. I get to craft my sentences, one at a time. I’m in the middle of a book now, it came highly recommended, it’s a non-fiction book about a subject I am very interested in, and the author is impressive in some ways, and I like the way his mind works. And his writing is not horrible. But about twice per page, I find myself thinking, dude, is that really the way you wanted to say that? I wonder if he wasn’t in too much of a hurry. I know guys who love working to a deadline, and I understand that, but there are important differences between reporters and novelists. It’s a different head.
I think most kinds of creativity are rooted in the deeper parts of the mind, the parts that do not speak to you in voices that are loud or insistent. I think, if you want to draw on your depth and your power, you have to learn to slow down, you have to learn to listen for those voices while you are working, you have to cross things out, you have to write notes to yourself in the margin, you have to give those roots of yours a little space, a little time, and a little respect. In our society we are all about productivity. The company I work for is in love with the concept of doing more with less, and with doing it faster. I’m not so sure it’s working for them, either.
What if your next writing project is the one that goes as deep as you can go? What if this is the one that will blow us all away, what if it’s going to have the power to have all of us sitting there with the book closed on the thumb that marks the page while we try to wrap our heads around the place you’ve just taken us? There are such works, you know, and I doubt if they get written at 75 wpm. What if you have one of those inside you, waiting for you to slow down enough to listen for that voice?
Only one way to find out.