Thursday, February 7, 2013

25% of the Time: Questions of Process

I watched the documentary Bad Writing for free on Vimeo last month. The film maker Vern Lott (whom I learned from watching was a fellow University of Idaho Vandal--woot woot for Brink Hall on film!)

did a remarkable job of collecting interviews with some of the best writers and writing teachers working today, including George Saunders, Steve Almond, David Sedaris, Margaret Atwood, among many, many incredible others.

The film is a wealth of thought-provoking insight, but in particular, I find myself coming back to a comment from Daniel Orozco, who commented that he loves writing 25% of the time and hates it the other 75% of the time. I'll be honest, this made me sit up, say, "me too!" and feel awash in all sorts of warmth and kinship. What's made me keep thinking of it, though, is what he said next--that drafting is least favorite part of the process. For him, to draft is the painful process of forcing down words when he can see that the syntax and words aren't working and everything is so, so bad. Revision brings the joy of relief, when he can make the language do what it needs.

For me, the reverse is true. I love the magic of discovery when I write into a scene and begin to envision the place and start to understand the complex reactions of my characters to their private and public conflicts and feel their humanity. I love getting carried away by a sentence and feeling like I'm an oar-less canoe floating along its whorls and eddies.

Revision, though? Oh revision. It would be unfair to say I hate it. Hate is too strong. As I tell my children, I'm too young to hate. I don't want to hate or be hateful. And honestly, I don't hate revision. Dread, yes; hate, no. Revision can offer the same magical and exciting surprises, the same writer highs, the pleasure as drafting. Unfortunately, they're often fewer and painfully far between. Revision is the necessary work, the moment where I acknowledge that the draft that carried me away is nowhere near good enough, the part in which I tear the scenes along their seams to try to determine what stuffing is missing.

The thing is, I probably spend 75%-80% of the time I'm "writing" a book locked in this final battle, trying to revise it so that the text resembles the vision at least in small part. And I'm wondering whether, for Orozco, it's the reverse. Does it take him 75% of the time to ache out a draft so he can have a joyous 25% time revising it? Do writers, by our natures, rush the part we love in the frenzy of our delight only to slog through the other part, and vice verse? If so, can--or should--we spend more time in whatever phase is the "good" part?

Ultimately, I find I don't trust the desire to prolong the joy or to mediate the hard parts. As masochistic as it may sound, I suspect that the painful 75%, wherever it lies, is the part that actually makes the finished book good. It's the part we can be proud of later. I suspect that, whatever the painful part of writing is, we avoid it at our work's peril.


  1. This documentary sounds interesting! I have a similar experience with writing, whether it's creative or legal: I love it 25% of the time (usually as I'm formulating my ideas, researching, and first putting words to paper) and dread it (to use your word) the rest of the time. Revising is the worst!

  2. Thanks for commenting! It's good to know I'm not alone. The law always struck me as a field that required a lot of creativity--which is *not* to imply you make things up, but that you have to be inventive in how you construct an argument to convince a jury. I imagine it's demanding but also really rewarding in that way.