Elders

It is important to have elders. One of mine is Ray Bradbury.

He was one of the best science fiction writers that ever lived. Countless short stories, television scripts, plays, and books flowed from his pen. He also had a love of life few had, or will ever, match.

This shines through in a book of his called Zen in the Art of Writing. It is the best book about writing anyone can read. Oftentimes such work can fall into dull introspection, cynicism, and tactics; Bradbury doesn’t waste his time with any of these things. He is unabashedly in love with writing and wants you to be too.

He speaks to an aspect of writing that people don’t talk about enough: just to be able to put words down on paper, or to type words onto a screen, has a magic to it. There is pure joy in the process. Writers need to be reminded of that much more than they need to be reminded to ‘kill their darlings’ or ‘never carry dialog with any other word than ‘said.”

However, he did recommend the use of a writing tactic called the ‘shitty first draft.’ Anne Lamott was the first to use the term, but Bradbury explains it best by far:

This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour critical water upon the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today-explode-fly-apart-disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, by reading your story, will catch fire, too?

Basically, he’s calling on you to get a first draft down as fast as you can, not to worry about any questions you have about form and function, and keep your edits for later.

As I said, Bradbury is an excellent writer. He loved writing like I do, and produced some of the best work I’ve ever read. Naturally I tried to emulate him. I tried to keep my first drafts quick. I tried to rewrite my next ones extensively. I tried to keep myself from changing the draft before I had completed it.

Doing all of these things felt like I was fighting against a current. I have always loved to fiddle with my writing as I am writing it. I am always writing garbage, and looking at it the next day, and starting over completely.

It was only recently that I realized that the shitty first draft is not a tactic I can use effectively.

First, when you are writing something long, subsequent events owe themselves to past ones. The best writing, in my eyes, builds on itself to crescendo. That’s very satisfying to me. In this way, writing a story or an essay is a lot like building a house; you have to build on a solid foundation. If the foundation is poor, then no matter the quality of the windows or the color of the paint, the thing is going to collapse. Careful construction is called for in a work like that.

Second, the very idea of a draft is a construction no writer need follow. If it is useful, sure, then separate your writing into drafts. I can’t prove this, but the likely reason writers separated their rounds of improvement into drafts is because they were working with physical paper copies. No one is doing that anymore unless they specifically choose to do so. With my really big projects I use a program called Scrivner, which allows me to manipulate digital sections and chapters even better than in Word. Right now, I am typing in a Gmail; I don’t know why. I suppose I just grew comfortable with it for essays.

No matter what tool I use, I am not burning the house down when I write a draft. I am building up. I am constructing something carefully. Editing as I go along is necessary for that.

Part of growing up, I think, is realizing that your elders, though you may admire them and love them dearly, are people. They may be great people. They may be masters of their craft. But they are still just that: people. They cannot have all the answers for you. Even if they have their right answer, it may not be so for your work, but when you begin you can’t see this. You look at those who’ve come before you and you imitate. You copy. Sometimes you copy shamelessly. Eventually, however, if you stick to you craft, you will realize your own way of doing things. You will bring your own instinct, creativity, and drive to the process.

Conversely, just because an elder is not perfect does not mean that they are not worth the listening. The best artists are rarely solitary lightening bolts; they are people in the conversation that is art. Having elders doesn’t mean you have no voice. It does not cheapen the lessons that you learn yourself.

It does say that you have teachers. You may not have ever met them. They may not have even lived within your lifetime. You can access their lessons too, thanks to the written word.

That, in and of itself, is a beautiful thing. You have access to conversations and people and worlds you never otherwise would have thanks to the written word. Ray Bradbury appreciated that fact. He loved that. And he wanted you, the reader, to share that love. To feel like he felt.

For this, and so many other reasons, he remains an elder of mine.

That’s also why I’m sure he’ll forgive me, if I don’t burn the house down.

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