It sounds easy, but it wasn’t. My brain had grown rigidly around the rhythms of my creative process. The messiness of my writing felt uncomfortable—a little like when I do an art project with my kids. My proclivity is to try to make sure nothing spills. I’m uncomfortable with paint dripping from my fingers. My kids glory in the fracas of making, though, because their minds are entirely in the flow of creation.
Letting such a tumult enter my process took practice. I trained by writing in five-minute sprints, not letting my pen leave the paper and not worrying about word choice, plot, or punctuation. Sometimes I’d give myself an audacious word-count challenge: to write a thousand words in an hour, or five hundred words in fifteen minutes. I recorded my escalating word-count totals as if tracking my training for a marathon.
Beyond my training techniques, though, I had to shift my fundamental mind-set toward writing. I embraced theatrical improvisation’s one key rule: “Say yes and….” It’s a protocol that allows anything to happen. No matter what your fellow actors present to you, instead of negating it or belittling it, you say yes and accept the scenario as it’s presented rather than stiff-arming it in the direction you want it to go.
I let words spill, and instead of narrowing the flow into a tributary of a story line as I might have previously, words flooded my narrative lands, changing boundaries and pushing characters into new realms.
It was fun, if nothing else. It made the trudging of my former process seem stiff and stodgy. But what struck me most when I returned to the clutter of my novel to revise was how many more ideas there were to work with. Not all of them were good, of course, but many held promise, and I’d certainly explored terrain I wouldn’t have normally.
My “ponderous preciousness” was akin to making a ceramic pot. Once a pot has a structure, it’s difficult to change, and impossible as the clay dries. My tendency to endlessly smooth and shape essentially kept ideas out instead of letting them in.
In Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (Image Continuum Press, 2001), coauthors David Bayles and Ted Orland recount the story of a ceramics instructor who did an experiment in his classroom. He divided the class into two groups. The first group was graded on quality, represented by a single ceramic piece due at the end of the class. The second group was graded on quantity, literally the amount of work they produced.
Who produced the highest quality work? Those who threw pots with abandon. Why? Because they tried more ideas. Instead of creating one overwrought pot, they produced pots that had more moxie because they’d banished the limiting framework of “quality.” They might have created more botched pots, more embarrassing pots, but they were astute enough to learn from those failures and build on them.
As Thomas Edison said, “The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours.”
The word to emphasize is experiment. A rough draft is inherently an experiment, or, rather, a series of experiments. Each novel, each piece of writing, is a new thing with different possibilities that demand to be explored. Many of those experiments will fail, but failure is necessary to find those wondrous and magical moments of success.
In an interview published by the Daily Beast in 2013, novelist Karen Russell said, “I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy ‘writing badly.’” One can enjoy “writing badly” knowing that the roughest stuff of a rough draft is where you might find the diamonds.
William Faulkner wrote as many as ten thousand words a day during his most prolific period, and generally averaged three thousand words. Writers such as Charles Dickens and Henry James pushed their word counts in haste to be published in the most prestigious publications of their day, those that serialized stories. Such tornadoes of writing have often riled the literary community, though. Consider Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of Kerouac’s style: It’s “not writing at all—it’s typing.”
I suppose you could say that Jackson Pollock didn’t paint, he spilled, or that John Cage didn’t compose music, he just randomly collected noises.
The nature of our process gives rise to the textures of our creations. I’d argue that Faulkner’s multiplicity of voices, the layers of history he excavated, and the poetic synesthesia of his language arose because he let himself be pulled by his words with such force. I’d argue that he found his voice—and the voice of a region and a time period—because of such a process.
Kerouac certainly found his voice through the mysterious openings he created through automatic writing. Kerouac was actually insecure about his linguistic capabilities. He grew up in a working-class French-Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, and spoke joual, which his biographer Joyce Johnson called “a wild and rich anarchic soup” of mostly Francophone influences that “neither Montrealers nor Parisians would consider correct.”
He later learned to speak English at a Franco-American parochial school, but never felt entirely at one with English. Like most writers, he tried on the voices of the authors he read, straining to match their lyricism. Only by dramatically changing his process—banishing the controlling dicta of authorities—did he find the distinctive syncopations of his own voice.
We don’t possess a voice as much as we create one, find one. I don’t write on a scroll of paper, as Kerouac famously did, and I don’t aim to write bop prosody. I’ll always tend to write in the slower rhythms of a walker because I didn’t train as a sprinter in my youth. Still, it’s nice to sometimes jump out of my more methodical process, whether in a rough draft or a fifth revision, and open a vein to search for something more unbridled and authentic.
Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the cofounder of 100 Word Story.