Mark Sarvas is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
I remember the day I sat down to read back the first draft of my second novel, Memento Park. I was in the lobby of the Jerusalem Crowne Plaza, a guest of the Jerusalem Book Festival, at the end of a four-year long journey to complete a workable first draft. (In contrast, my first novel, from idea to finished version, took three years.) Life had interfered along the way with this book, but more dramatically, I chose to write it without an outline, to allow my instincts to guide me to a story. It had taken much longer, and the process was filled with uncertainty — but the result was a stronger novel, I felt sure of it.
As an instructor of creative writing, one of the most common conversations I have with my students is about first drafts. I see so much hesitation, resistance, and uncertainty when the process should be one of joyful discovery. It’s a common complaint: “I can’t seem to move forward. I can’t really get started. I can’t get any momentum going.” Instead, beginning writers often end up forever revising the first 25 pages. At the risk of generalizing, most commonly, there are one of two things at play: control or vanity (though I suppose the two are related). In the first draft, both of these must go.
Control: Time and again, a student tells me she or he can’t make progress in the draft because they don’t know where it’s going. That’s the time I usually trot out the famous E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For some writers, sure, an outline can be a useful guide. (I used one for my own first novel, Harry, Revised.) But I increasingly hold with what Bernard Malamud said: “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about.” The writer who can relinquish control, who doesn’t need to know in advance, will discover all sorts of miraculous things on his or her journey. The novel that doesn’t surprise the writer will not surprise the reader; and how can the writer be surprised if all is sketched out up front? The number one writing fallacy: you have to know what it’s about to begin. Wrong. You have to trust yourself and write.
Vanity: This is even more insidious. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the first draft. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is shit.” No one should see your first drafts, they are your dirty little secret. You will never have the courage to be adventurous and take risks if you’re worrying about who is going to judge it. The first draft is a blueprint, a back-of-the-napkin sketch, something never meant to be shown to anyone. I tell my students to imagine a grand chasm, the kind of thing Indiana Jones might have to get across. The first draft need be no more than a rickety rope bridge, something that just barely spans the gap, often with plenty of treacherous holes along the way. It’s just a down payment on a future, sturdier bridge that will be built up over time, layered through multiple revisions.
Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, a writer friend told me something a writer friend had told him: Write two pages a day. One page isn’t enough to develop a thought, and three can start to feel like a lot. But anyone can do two pages; that’s about the length of Doctorow’s headlights. And in six months (or four years), you can have a first draft. But don’t show a soul; now, the real work begins.
Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Bookforum, and many other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and teaches writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He lives in Santa Monica, California.