This afternoon I was working on a squib that I found especially cumbersome. Every sentence I wrote was wrong standing around in the wrong place, like a drunk frat boy trying to fraternize in a solemn church. The piece didn't have a thesis - but that hasn't really stopped me before, as kind readers of this blog will know. The problem was that I kept on rereading what I had written, rehashing it, refocusing it, twisting each paragraph into something new, something that would fit, and nothing seemed to fit; after a while, I couldn't even think of what I was trying to fit it into.
But after several hours of tweaking, I think I've gotten something that, while I can't be proud of it, I at least can show it to other human beings.
Later this afternoon, following the habit of Mr. Sam Clemens, I took a notebook into bed with me and, struggling against the heat, scribbled a couple pages of a short story I've been working on about a guy who finds a Diabolical Machine in his apartment building. Now, what struck me was that I just wrote, knowing that later I would come back and pare back what was extraneous, tighten the limp descriptions, polish the rough edges until they shone. But I was scared, actually - thinking this too languorous, too lazy.
Now, the difference between these two acts of writing is that for non-fiction writing, you have a thesis to argue, while with fiction, your point's more blunt. In writing non-fiction, I can edit while I'm writing because I know, before I'm finished, the general point I want to make, and I can tailor each sentence and each paragraph to lead up to that point. But in fiction, I can get no clear sense of what I'm trying to do until the entire sprawling mess is in front of me. And even then it's pretty hard.
But I felt a deeper fear. A fear of the edit. Imagine a lifetime of editing, a lifetime of work spent trying to get every word right, to sharpen my thoughts until they could cut. Now, this isn't too dire - if you understand from the outset that, given the sweat and the ink and the tweak you can come up with some sentences that have some bite to them; but if you're like me, a poor little slob with a couple blogs, some writerly airs, and an internship; you have no such guarantee. Think of how exciting, how wonderful, editing would be if you knew that the words you were editing would stand for a year or ten; and think of how disappointing, how dull, how self-conceited it would be to edit and think that those words would stand for no-one, no matter how sharp they were?