I saw this rather odd writing tip on Twitter the other day. I’m quoting it, rather than another, because it does such a good job of summarizing an attitude towards writing I’ve seen over the years.
Writing Tip: If “editing” your first draft consists of fixing a few typos and changing a word here and there, you’re not doing it right. A first draft should be ripped apart, refashioned, and sewn back together. Anything less is vanity.
It’s that last part that’s the key to this weird attitude. If a particular writer has a writing style where the first draft is essentially a protracted brainstorming session and that works for them, then good for them. The weird attitude is that this is how it should be.
In reality, for at least some people, writing a decent first draft is a viable option. If you’ve done enough planning that you’ve constructed the characters and planned out the setting and written the plot in such a way that it flows out of the characters in their circumstances—substantial changes wouldn’t be editing, they’d be just writing a different book where some of the characters have the same names.
Now, again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. If for some reason a writer cannot bring themselves to do this sort of planning and thinking before they start writing, then I understand doing a book-length brainstorming session in order to generate some material to work with. I’ve written a few first drafts of novels which I haven’t carried through to publishing, and there’s even a very loose sense in which The Dean Died Over Winter Break can be thought of as a substantial rewrite of a previous novel called A Murder At Yalevard—though it was really more of a different book in which I borrowed some elements of the original. But I find it very strange that the writer quoted above cannot conceive of someone who can plan out their books.
There is of course the explanation that such a writer just cannot see beyond their own limitations, but I can’t help but wonder if this attitude isn’t tied in to the idea of the tortured genius. It was an idea that, so far as I know, became popular somewhere in the 1800s, around the time of Byron and Shelley, who were tortured not so much be genius as by their inability to control their lust. Shelley, in particular, seems to have been afflicted in this way, and his vices seem to have been excused by himself and his wife and friends as, not weaknesses, but virtues. To try to say it was not bad for Percy Bysshe Shelly to cheat on his pregnant wife, they invented a new kind of morality where artists were excused from being halfway decent human beings because of the enormous value they gave to humanity. Their art, I mean.
I’m not sure why this idea was popular, but it does seem to have had some currency through at least the 1930s—at least if golden age detective stories are anything to go by. It also seems, curiously, to be more popular with women than with men; it seems to have been female writers who wrote about it approvingly, and within their fiction it was generally only the women (and occasionally a close male friend) who bought the nonsense. Why that is, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s related to the “bad boy” phenomenon. And for that reason, the idea that one should tear a first draft up in a passion of anger at how far it falls short, and completely rework it, may be related.
As a related side-note, actual geniuses never seem to have been tortured, except occasionally by actual problems, like Beethoven being deaf. Shakespeare was, so far as we know, as reasonably happy as a recusant Catholic could have been in England in the late 1500s. Mozart seems to have no greater troubles than having a period when he didn’t make much money because a war made it hard for musicians; summary biographies don’t mention anything which would interest modern people by similarity, such as profound depression.
Shelly’s genius, to the degree that anyone still holds that he was a genius, seems very overrated. Ozymandias is a good poem, but certainly nothing worth excusing adultery for.
Casting the mind’s eye over other examples of tortured geniuses and actual geniuses, it seems like perhaps the thing that’s really attractive about the tortured genius is not the genius part, but the torture part. And I can’t help but think that this attitude that writing should be torture—what else can throwing away something one worked long and hard at be?—is an attempt to try to find some shreds of life in pain, by people who have no idea where to find life in this world.