Monday, August 22, 2011

Forget the blank page -- this is a writer's worst enemy

Photo by mpclemens

I sat down in the coffee shop yesterday, laptop at hand, with one goal: write a new picture book manuscript in two hours.

The cursor blinked. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I could read every acceptance letter from publishers, see every illustration in my head, hear every parent reading it aloud at bedtime to spotless, expectant little faces.

So I clickety-clacked my heart out, undaunted by the white page, unwavering in my self-belief. I had no reason to hesitate. I knew this was pure gold.

Until I read what I'd written.

And that's when I realized: Blank pages are not the enemies writers like to make them out to be. First drafts are.

Blank pages are the easy part. They're shining beacons of potential and hope. You haven't offended anyone with bad grammar or struggled to fill a plot hole or dyed the whole thing red with editorial ink. Blank pages hold only your best intentions.

First drafts, however, reveal just how far you are from your initial, glorious vision. Instead, all your imperfections have emerged in harsh sunlight with bad hangovers. Characters trip over each other and lose their voices. Chapters drag like mummy feet. You're pretentious on one page, trite on another. And for the love of God, do not. Put in. That EPILOGUE.

Coming up short is scary. Whaddya mean, I wasn't perfect out of the gate? you think. It shakes your confidence. To paraphrase Lincoln (a fine writer who I'm hoping had a ton of first drafts), better the page remain blank and be thought perfect than to fill it up and inject all doubt.

So where does leave us, besides crying in the corner and taking to drink? As I see it, we have two options for our work:

1) Put on blinders. Insist on your consummate brilliance. Consider your job done.

2) Admit your weaknesses. Admit your strengths. Keep working.

Hmm. Sounds a bit like life, dunnit? How the most productive route usually isn't the easiest? Or fastest? Or cleanest?

I sat reading that picture book draft and watched my happy daydreams evaporate like steam from the espresso machine. But don't get all depressed on my account. The visions, the goals, the ambitions -- they're all cyclical. I didn't diminish or abandon them. I just set them alongside the first draft to keep a watchful eye on my progress.

The good news is, the most evil part is over. I put real words on paper. Now I have something to work with. Something to improve upon. Something even bigger to earn.

Prayer #177: Work in Progress

God of sparks and daydreams and notebook doodles --

Take what is passable and elevate it.
Take what is useable and sculpt it.
Take what is good and burnish it.

Make me superlative, just as You envisioned.

Amen.

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