There is always something deeply humbling about finishing the first draft…
It doesn’t matter how many plays I have written, the process never becomes hackneyed, or familiar, or any easier.
Some years ago I wrote a letter to myself which I kept on my desktop titled
READ THIS WHEN YOU’RE IN DESPAIR AND HATING YOURSELF AND THE WORK AND EVERYTHING WHEN TRYING TO WRITE THAT FEKKING DRAFT
It was a reminder of certain phases I invariably seem to go through: the deliciousness of research, the battle to withdraw from this glorious process and actually get down to some work. Then there are the moments of brainlessness and cotton wool mind, when any sense of character, or context, or storyline, or purpose is terrifyingly absent, when I think finally I have been found out as the talentless floozy I fear lurks in the darkest corners of my being. This is the hateful period of doubt, when the heart bangs against the ribs and I regret taking the commission and agreeing to the deadline and whose stupid idea was it to follow this line of creativity, anyway?
And then there are the reminders of the utter joy. The sublime moments I have never experienced in any other context in my life, when everything is porous, where my breath and my flesh and the universe and the keyboard and the imagination and the fluency of thought miraculously meld and five hours have passed and I didn’t even notice and I want to spend my entire life in this kinked position hooked over a book or a laptop and to hell with food and water and fresh air and sunlight and standing up and goodness, what’s this? Other human beings in the house?!
Writing consumes me and sustains me in a way no other activity ever has. This obsession, this practice, has longevity. It has been my familiar through the vast majority of my life – even before I knew the alphabet when I scrawled over my elder brother’s schoolbook and claimed I was writing a story.
And no matter how long I do it, no matter what small success or satisfaction or failure I may have, it never ceases to surprise me, to remain in parts unknowable, for I find each new project brings unique challenges and processes which differ from what I have done, before. And so I am constantly learning, and developing, and honing skills and never resting on laurels or replicating whatever I have done, before.
So it is deeply humbling to finally stagger through to the end of a first draft, as I did with ‘Woman of Flowers’ for Forest Forge theatre company last night. No matter how strong my sense of trajectory and story may be, I never fully know where I am going and where I have been until I complete this first draft.
Finishing work is essential. I make it the golden rule when teaching or mentoring any writer, and the lynchpin of my own work. Completing the draft, following that throughline (which doesn’t have to be linear or chronological), wrestling with the unities, filling in the holes and stapling it all together into some kind of coherent logic is where we really learn as writers and makers. We can all write brilliant fragments. We all have brief moments when an image or allusion seems perfect and captures exactly a thought. The major learning and honing of skills comes with putting that final full stop on a full draft after nursemaiding and bullying and coaxing and bewailing – after fretfully, anxiously, triumphantly harnessing our skills and applying them to our imagination.
Printing ‘End of first draft’ at the bottom of the page (as I did last night) doesn’t mean to say our work is done – far from it – writing is all about rewriting. Completing a first draft may throw up more problems to be solved than seems fair or possible. There will be further crises and conundrums and bewailing and killing of darlings, and the final draft may differ as much from the first as a butterfly does a chrysalis. Or it may be a very close likeness, indeed. That is the joy and the discovery – how this toddling creation will turn out in its fluid, solid maturity.
And this joy and challenge lies ahead for me. But for one day at least, I shall savour the relish of putting down that final full stop, and breathe deeply and with pleasure on a difficult journey completed.