The writer doldrums: Why can’t I read a first draft of my favorite book? Without the polish?

One of my favorite Christmas gifts this year came from my dad and stepmother: the series “Frasier” on DVD. I absolutely love that show, but only started watching it in its last season. I’ve seen earlier episodes on syndication, but now I have it all at my fingertips. Exciting! But what does this have to do with the blog?

I watched an episode a couple of days ago in which Niles and Frasier team up to write a book about the psychology of sibling rivalry. They hole themselves up in a hotel to avoid distractions and try to work. After some painful hours passing by, cut to:

FRASIER: Niles, I’ve just had an epiphany.
NILES: Oh, wonderful. We could use a second sentence.
FRASIER: No, it’s not for the book. I realized why so many writers become bloated, alcoholic suicides… (NILES starts typing on his computer) No, don’t type that in.
NILES: I’m not. I’m adding up our tab from the minibar.

(Of course, I own none of that dialogue. All copyright to the producers and writers of the sitcom.)

After laughing out loud, I started thinking: Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath…. Why do so many writers turns to suicide and/or alcohol to alleviate depression? What is the connection between writers and depression, if there is one?

Well, this post isn’t really about that. I’m no psychiatrist. Perhaps creative personality types are more likely to ponder the deep questions and get lost in them…. I’m not sure. My point is this:

Writing sure depresses me from time to time. There are days it’s a total chore. Days I feel like I’m ridiculous for even attempting to establish myself as a fantasy author. There are days the words just blow raspberries at me like a baby or run away like we’re kids on a playground and I was tagged “it.”

Writing is hard. Everyone knows that. Whether you’re writing fiction, a dissertation on architecture or philosophy, or (as Frasier and Niles could tell you) a book on pop psychology, it’s a struggle. That’s such common knowledge that popular sitcoms make jokes about its tendency to drive people to drink. Knowing all this, I got to asking myself, “Why do I write? And why fantasy, in particular?”

It’s a legitimate question. I think if I find one more inconsistency or problem with the twice edited draft of “The King’s Sons” I recently sent off to a couple of beta readers, I am going to pop a vein. Just last month, finishing up a first draft nearly brought me to wit’s end because two characters just would not cooperate with me and I felt like I was writing swill.

WHAT IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO: A SUPPORT SYSTEM

I’ve said this before, but I write because it fulfills me. Sure, sometimes I want to strangle one of my characters…. I’m sure my mom wanted to strangle me from time to time when I was a kid! I was loud and neurotic and asked questions constantly. Despite that, I’m also sure she loved me, and I have no doubt she’d be proud of me and my books if she were here still.

We writers all know it’s hard. We also know it’s worth it. And we need to band together to swap horror stories about how hard it is and how we almost gave up at that point, or at this one. We need to say “This part of the process drives me crazy! Doesn’t it drive you nuts?” Because misery loves company. It’s consoling to know that I’m not alone, and I’m not the only writer feeling insecure about my abilities and doubting whether I can do this. I love reading books by bloggers I follow (bloggers who admit to the same doubts I have) and then enjoying their work. It makes me think maybe I can do this after all.

CAN’T I READ AN EARLY DRAFT OF MY FAVORITE BOOK???

Writing’s greatest curse is that, despite how hard we know it is, it feels like it should be easy. Writing feels like it should come at the press of a hand to the keyboard to me, because I read a lot of the classics. The masters. I read them and I am blown away, and while I will never, ever stop reading them, I just feel like a pile of dog droppings when I think of my own writing in comparison. I read so many beautiful passages of characterization and description in the last Dickens novel I picked up (“Dombey and Son.”) And I was blown away, for a minute or two. Immediately after I’m thinking: why can’t I write like that???

Sometimes I really, really wish I could read J.K. Rowling’s pre-editing editions of Harry Potter. Or Margaret Mitchell’s first draft of “Gone with the Wind.” Because then I would see how much work they and others put into fixing the novel, making it readable and cohesive. That would help my insecurities, I think. The problem is, we don’t see those steps. We only get the polished, beautiful product at the end. And we compare our early drafts to those shining gems, and our works in progress…. They don’t look too great after that.

I need to stop comparing my work to others’ and to some unrealized ideal and just keep plodding (plotting?). And that’s what I plan to do. I’ll pour in the blood and sweat and tears knowing other writers are all doing the same thing and feeling the same things I am. So thanks you guys, you who have commented on my blog and who run blogs of your own that I read and relate to. I appreciate the support, and I hope you find my ramblings as helpful as I find your contributions to the conversation!

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12 responses to “The writer doldrums: Why can’t I read a first draft of my favorite book? Without the polish?

  1. I like your thoughts on this! I will say Hemingway was only one in a long line of suicides in that particular family. Today, people think it may have been a chemical imbalance in the brain passed on from generation to generation–but just speculation.

    As for reading a rough draft of a polished piece, try T.S. Elliot’s Waste Land. It’s a poem, but there are huge amounts of documentation on many of his rough drafts of that poem. Very cool. Some of it is even in his own handwriting. 🙂

    • I didn’t realize that about Hemingway’s family. So sad! And thanks for the suggestion of Eliot 🙂 I remember that poem from lit classes in college. it’s quite an undertaking, would be fun to revisit. And thanks for dropping by!

  2. Comparing ourselves to others is always a neurosis-inducing project, but your desire to see someone’s draft is an interesting one. I find it difficult when I’m struggling with a writing task (I don’t do fiction, but I have numerous other projects), and all the “examples” out there are the final versions of things. They often look great. The nice thing about non-fiction though is that sometimes you do see some really bad stuff out there. That sometimes encourages me to say to myself, “OK, I really can do this. I can do at least THAT well.”

    I enjoy your blog! Thanks!

    • glad you enjoy it! i had never thought about the comparison between fiction and non-fiction in that regard…. thanks for bringing it up! it is heartening to find successful but flawed projects, isn’t it?

  3. I remember that episode! They got so strung they fought each other.

    Anyway, yes, that is likely the source of the insecurity and why I tell myself ‘the first draft is always crap’

  4. That’s a great point — I would LOVE to see WIPs of famous books. I guess that would either spoil the illusion of great authors or discourage us, haha. I’m sure some of those first drafts were pretty good, but I doubt most of them were. The key to good writing is good editing!

  5. Pattyann McCarthy

    I’ve often asked myself the same. I would love to read Tolkien’s first draft of the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He even referred to his own work as drivel and never thought anyone would enjoy reading such nonsense, and now look! His works ARE our classics. Incredible.

    • It’s honestly incredible. And comforting to see that the masters also doubted themselves. Honestly, I think when you DON’T doubt, don’t strive to do better, is when you’re in trouble.

      • Pattyann McCarthy

        I would agree with you, and I’m guessing I’m doing right after all! Lots of doubts here, a whole lot of striving for improvement, though there are really great experiences too, and I love those days.

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