I reminded myself, this past week, just how faulty first drafts of poems can be, when, a few days after I wrote it, I looked again at a new poem I had been somewhat excited about. As I set to work trying to remedy the poem’s flaws, feeling that sense of chagrin that so often accompanies early, uncritical excitement, some part of me thought Be kind to yourself, be patient. It so often takes numerous “cognitive passes” over the developing draft. The idea that any work of the imagination, intellect, or both, gradually gets worked into shape has helped me so much, both in teaching—of expository writing, creative writing, and critical writing on literature—and in my own writing of all of these kinds, and I think it has helped students, too. I recall encountering inexperienced students in composition classes, whose underlying idea of the essay was that it should spring whole from their minds, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, and who were stymied by that belief. The inception of an essay, poem or story (if not the actual beginning of the finished work) may be more like trying to grab the tail of a dream as it scampers off in the light of dawn. My advice: grab anything you can, and set it provisionally down. Don’t abandon it because it’s utterly incomplete, its purpose and potential development obscure. A will lead to B, then maybe, yes, a cross-out of A, but B leading to C, D and E, along with many indirections that may find directions out (to apply Hamlet’s words to our purpose). The notion of “cognitive passes” recognizes that there is just so much the mind can take in at one time, it reminds us to be kind and patient with ourselves. Successive layers of underbrush may have to be cleared away before one can see the shape of the ground. In writing an essay, sentence grammar may have to be clarified in order for the writer to understand her own thinking about cause and effect. Diction may have to become more exact before the writer really senses what she is writing about, and once diction and grammar are more precise, the larger structure the whole should have may become more clear. And there’s no necessary order of march. What’s heartening is how improvement in any aspect throws another necessary step into relief. Time is the writer’s friend in this process, although, so often, especially for students, it’s hard to build it in. Even a few days between messy rough draft and the next try can radically improve the writer’s perception, and start her on the path to becoming her own editor.
There is a sort of opposite to this messy, but ultimately cumulative process. Sometimes, when we are struggling with something we have written before it approaches wholeness (I have experienced this with poems), we can feel so ungrounded that the structure, or an image, or the rhythm or sound of a phrase appears to need changing every time we look at the work, and we find ourselves re-configuring one of these elements, and reverting to the status quo ante the very next day, and we keep doing this over a period of time, flailing. The mind is so flexible; it is all too easy to see the “rightness” of conflicting possibilities at different times. Maybe this is all part of the process—of poems, at least—finally a process of not having it every which way, of eliminating some paths, as well as of preserving the mystery and richness of the ones we choose.
It is amazing and intriguing to me, that the process of rereading one’s own work (especially if one is lucky enough to be able to put it away for some time between reads) seems to glean continued insights, new nuances. I find this to be true as I reread the new poetry manuscript I have begun to send out. Every change (such as a recent removal of some of the poems) has the effect of highlighting an aspect of the manuscript that was not quite fully illuminated for me previously, of throwing something else into salience. At the moment, thankfully, that new nuance I perceive feels as if it enriches the manuscript, rather than making me want to edit it further. For the moment, at least, I am at peace.