Writing the First Draft: Are you a Picasso or a Pollack?

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My husband and I are in the garage, painting. He’s building a shelving unit to hold our many books. The boards are arranged on a tarp on the garage floor, and we’re painting the base coat.

The paint is thick and white. I’m enjoying the way the roller slips through the paint tray, the way the latex smooths onto the wood. As I paint, I try to cover my track, try to erase the edges the roller creates. The work is meditative and rhythmic. I’m in the zone.

My husband works quickly, painting twice as many boards. “You don’t have to worry about the roller marks,” he reminds me. “This is just the base coat.”

And of course, I think about writing. Because I find a way of relating most things in my life back to writing.

I used to subscribe to the “throw up, then clean up” school when it came to writing first drafts. I wrote fast, throwing words and ideas on the page, knowing I could be messy because I would go back and clean up the words later. Writing this way is exciting. It’s a rush. It’s what writing should feel like, right?

Well, painting those boards made me see that somewhere along the line I’ve slowed down my drafting. I pay more attention to word choice and to the shape the story is taking. Writing this way takes time. It’s contemplative. It’s the opposite of a rush. More like a long walk toward a desired destination.

The first way makes me think of a Jackson Pollack painting. There’s art there, but maybe it’s difficult to see. The second way makes me think of a Picasso. There’s art there, too, but the shape and form is more apparent. (For the record, this is just a metaphor. I’m not knocking either painter. And also for the record, The Old Guitarist is one of my favorite paintings ever. Just saying.)

But I’m wondering: is one way of writing the first draft better than the other? My gut says no. If you keep writing and revising, you’ll end up with a polished product. Maybe the second way will get you there sooner, though, because you’re filtering your ideas and words before putting them on the page. What do you think?

On a number of occasions, I’ve asked my teacher, James Sallis, about his process. Does he “throw up and clean up”? No. He searches for the right word and image before writing it down. He says he’s been writing long enough that now it’s second nature. He doesn’t make as many mistakes up front.

Makes sense.

I remember hearing Walter Mosley read a chapter from his then-WIP. I asked him how many drafts that chapter had been through. He thought about it and kind of shrugged. “Four, maybe?” Sounds like Walter Mosley has drafting down to second nature as well.

When I think about my own writing, it makes me glad to think I’m moving toward that level where I’m more conscious of the work I’m doing while I’m doing it. But part of me also misses the rush of the wild throw-up drafting.

My question for you is: are you a Pollack or a Picasso? How do you write that first draft? Do you throw up and clean up, or take a slower approach?

Please just don’t tell me you sit down at the blank page and create a refined Rembrandt. That might send me over the edge. I’ll have to go cut off my ear or something.


5 thoughts on “Writing the First Draft: Are you a Picasso or a Pollack?

    Lisa Nowak said:
    March 8, 2010 at 10:15 am

    I definitely take a slower approach. Must be the perfectionist in me. 🙂 Most of my re-writing has to do with enhancing plot and subplot, adding details I forgot, and so forth. The actual prose from first draft to last doesn’t change that much.

    Mara said:
    March 11, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    I binge and purge. I tend to walk around with a picture in my mind. But how to describe it. I make notes, research, think, think, think. Then, I finally work out the first line. Once I have that first line, the rest flows easily. If I am near pen, paper or computer.

    After that it is continuous revision.

    Why is is great to have your writing published? You never have to revise it again!


      Amy K. Nichols said:
      March 24, 2010 at 9:56 am

      Hi Mara! That is great that things flow easily after the first line. And I agree with you about publication, though I’ve met a couple of authors who continue to revise even after that!

    Nicole Langan said:
    March 22, 2010 at 9:46 am

    take your time, it pays off.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      March 24, 2010 at 9:54 am

      Thanks, Nicole! It was a good, productive week. Now I’m eager to get back to writing. Yay!

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