Last week, I tweeted this:
I know a lot of writers love drafting – the excitement, the exploration, the sheer creativity of it. I don’t. I hate drafting. In fact, writing first drafts is something I do because I need something to revise and edit. It doesn’t even matter than I outlined this book before I began to draft (for better or worse, I’m a planner). I’m just not happy until I have a mess to clean up.
My comfort is in brevity – flash fiction, short stories, articles and essays. As a writer, I like tight arcs and tiny details. I like snapshots in time, and little human moments that betray universal truths. I’m not good at being thrilling or even entertaining. I have no confidence in my ability to hold a reader’s attention past 5,000 words, which makes longer form fiction territory I need to explore. I have five novels simmering on the back burner, all unrelated, some erotic, some not. Every one of them is a demon I need to address, because I’m tired of being cowed by a word count.
But let’s go back to that whole, I hate drafting thing. This novel that I’m working on, tentatively called The Briary, is the simplest of the bunch, or so I thought. It was meant to be a fun, erotic romp through a Victorian manor house, but it’s turned out to be something else. The problem is that I’m not sure what the something else is, and that uncertainty froze me up.
The wise thing to do would be to keep drafting and not worry about it. Explore. See what happens. But I’m a control freak and that’s easier said than done. Drafting is difficult for me, regardless of length – 500 or 50k, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like finding out how a story ends. I like knowing so I can figure out how deep it goes.
Pygmalian and Galatea by Jean-Leon Gerome ca. 1890. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
When I was an undergraduate, I took a handful of courses in the classics, and read a lot of Aristotle along the way. In addition to the Poetics, which I think every writer should read if only to understand the foundations of narrative structure, the thing that has most affected my writing was his philosophy of causality and the example commonly used illustrate it – that of a sculptor working in bronze or marble.
Around that same time, I spent many afternoons at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, journaling in the sculpture garden, so this notion of the creative process being a tangible series of causes and effects wove itself into my subconscious and became fundamental to the way I work. Here are the Four Causes applied to my writing process:
1. Material Cause: Out of what has a thing come?
What’s the germ of the idea? In the case of The Briary, I had originally thought it was just my love of Victorian literature and threesomes (because threesomes are great), but once I began digging into it, I realized that the foundation of this book is a relationship I once had, and my need to work through unfinished business.
2. Formal Cause: What is it?
Could I tell this story, this germ of an idea, as a short? A novella? Fuck me, no. It has to be a novel. Time to get over that fear of running the writing marathon then.
3. Efficient Cause: Who makes it? Who causes the change?
The writer. The artist. The sculptor. As applied to any art, it’s the creator who molds the idea into its proper form. Sculptors have a block of stone to start with, but writers have to create the material they are going to change. Which means drafting. A lot. Fuck me, again.
4. Final Cause: Why? To What purpose?
Why do you create what you create? For writers, this is authorial intent, which is usually a form of communication – the subconscious dialogue between you and whoever receives your work. Do you want to make people think? Feel? Do you want to turn them on? The answer is unique to the writer and the story, but for most writers (though there are exceptions) the writing is, at least in part, done in service to the affect she hopes her work will have.
The Final Cause is what I love most about writing. It’s what drives me happily through multiple edits, because that’s where I uncover what the story wants to say. Many writers are able to find this in drafting, but for some reason I’m not. For some reason, my process is to coax the story open later, once it’s no longer a figurative block of stone.
This is where the sculpting metaphor comes in handy. I can’t sculpt the story out of nothing, so I need an idea, a foundation and a ton of material – what I call narrative clay, for lack of a better word. Writing the initial draft is where the clay comes from. For me, it’s lumpy, messy, chaotic, and yes, full of promise, but also in desperate need of refinement. I get impatient to dig in – I want to find the form hidden inside the lump.
Once I have that great lump of clay, I slough off the mess and slowly uncover the story underneath. This is where I feel like a writer, (whatever that means). This is where I hit my dreamy, natural stride, chiseling away like an archeologist on 12 square inches of Roman wall. Once I can see the thing for what it is, I edit for style, which is totally satisfying in a different way. And when I’m finally done, I have the final cause – a finished story that will hopefully connect with its reader.
This novel, The Briary, got off to a difficult start. I began it last year, but put it aside several times because of deadlines, work and other obligations. In that time, it became a bogeyman, the symbol of a marathon I didn’t feel I could run. But I am running it now, very slowly, chapter by chapter (because I’m a sprinter so I have to trick myself 5k at a time).
I’m about a third of the way in now and beginning to hit my stride. I still don’t know what this book is going to be, but I need to learn to suck that up like I do with shorter works. I’ll uncover it revisions. Right now, I have to focus on making the clay.