The weekend before last I went to the premier performance of a friend’s play. I’ve been to a few of these. We went to college together, and many of the theater majors directed plays that he’d written. Last weekend, his sister’s drama class put on an original fairy tale he wrote.
He’s a brilliant playwright. His characters all have strong and unique voices. His plots are well structured. When he sends me drafts to read through, I find it hard to come up with comments to send back because the writing pulls me from start to finish without a moment to question his word choice. I’m always, always jealous of the seemingly effortless way he incorporates humor into his work, and I can’t help but think that every stage of his writing process comes out as succinct and entertaining as his final drafts.
That’s exactly the sort of thing you’d see from a writer in some television show. They always seem to type out the perfect story in one draft. I mean no television version of any profession holds much real world weight. Car dealers, for example, probably don’t make half as many sales as television tells you they do, and the sales they make don’t always involve that shiny, impractical, sports car that Main Character is purchasing during mid-life crisis. But the difference between television’s version of car dealers and television’s version of writers is that there’s the chance that an average care salesman will encounter an average midlife crisis and be able to sell that shiny, impractical, sports car. It won’t be every sale in a career, but it might be one sale or a few sales. There’s no chance that an average writer will be able to write a finished book in the first draft.
Sure, some people might be able to do that. Some people are also Einstein and Marilyn Monroe, shining stars of their professions.
The first draft is usually a hodgepodge of ideas that will need to be sifted through in later drafts. If you’re anything like me, it’s a starting ground to solidify your ideas that get thrown out in favor of the second draft. You go through the second draft, edit it, agonize over it, and talk through verb tenses and plot points with your friends, partner, or the random stranger who happened to ask you “How are you today”, until you’ve worked yourself into the third draft. You hand it over to some beta readers, thinking you’re a quick edit away from completing your project. They tell you that there’s a major plot hole in section two, and chapters three to five could be condensed into one chapter, and you don’t really need that whole scene at the end of the book. You look back over your book and see how right they are. You were hopelessly wrong in thinking that this book was ready, and you go back to fix things.
Or at least that’s what my writing process is like.
The most realistic writer I’ve seen portrayed on TV was in Parenthood when Sarah Braverman writes a play. She works on it for several days, and her family steals copies to read it behind her back. Her dad tells an old army buddy who is coincidentally a professional director (with a dying career). (Up until this point, you have me. I’ll buy it as a totally plausible writing experience.) Professional director introduces her to famous producer. Everyone who reads her play loves it so much that all the red tape is cleared away, and she suddenly has the once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough opportunity.
Of course Parenthood attempts to make this last part believable by having the director walk her through a month or so of editing. Sarah, having no experience with or expertise in plays and play writing, has to struggle through a month or so of late nights and neglected family members to devote her attention to this play. The series of serendipitous possibilities really is too good to be true. Sarah falls into them, and then, after a few more mentions of writing, that portion of her plot fades into the background of things that happened to her once.
Watching people portray writers on television makes it hard for me to remember that years of work have gone into every book on my bookshelf. I forget that it’s normal for a piece to need more than one draft and that sometimes staring at your computer screen until the write words form in your mind is the correct course of action. I have to remember these things and then give myself permission to do the work that it will take to complete my novel.
My friend’s play, despite my jealous musings, took lots of forethought, weeks of writing, and months of editing. I like to think that the process is somehow easier for other people, but in truth writing is work for everyone. Sometimes the work is faster or cleaner or harder for some people, but it’s always work.