That’s because, at bottom, the product IS the proof, of course: the only tangible measure of whatever the heck we feel we’ve been doing, or even why we feel entitled to do it at all.
For a long time, though, it has struck me that writers need to feed themselves swaths more freedom in every phase of making work, until the absolute last. This fundamental, essential, precious freedom somehow vanishes from too many minds, even before the owners of those minds sit down at the desk.
Writers can screw themselves up, pointlessly and damagingly, with premature self-judgment and self-damnation. And in the words (I think) of the late great ballplayer Satchell Paige, it ain’t restful.
Again and again I tell students:
Tell yourself you are going to make a big mess. The biggest mess there could be.
I want those words, a big mess, to be branded into developing writers’ brains. And with those words I want an image to pop up: the vision of fingerpainting in kindergarten.
What could be more freeing? You use the colors you like best and get your hands right into the shiny goo and move it around the big white paper—and nobody freaks out about those irrevocable first strokes, because there’s always more paper—then slop some more paint on and make rainbows or dogs and cats or abstract expressionism: a hell of a good time. We didn’t worry about what anyone would think, or exactly how the final product would look.
That’s the kind of vast, easy, sky-high freedom I mean. Annie Lamott used to remind writers about this freedom, but she couched it in wretched terms. She called it allowing yourself a crappy (paraphrasing) first draft.
Never mind numbers of drafts. I never count them. The writer’s great freedom and privilege, in perfect privacy, is to go through the material again and again, making it as close as we can to what is taking shape in our mind’s eye; what we want it to be.
There’s always more paper.
Only at the very last, after we’ve truly come to the proverbial point of putting in a comma and taking it back out, can we start to think about showing it to a trusted reader.
And we’re better for it. That’s no lie.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.