On Drafting

On Drafting

In my several experiences working with high school teens in creative writing one idea that reoccurs is, drafts? I don’t do drafts. My poems/stories express how I felt while I wrote them. If I change them now the feeling will be destroyed. It is a pretty idea, but it contains a tragic flaw. If the feeling is so fragile and so one-off how shall anyone else recognize it? The idea simply denies the role of readership.

The reality is that drafting a literary work clarifies it. No author is devoid of this need in their original drafts; some comment somewhere says of Nabakov’s manuscript for The Real Life of Sebastian Knight that the editor was surprised to find hardly even a spelling error (the hardly here is very important). What I mean to say is, nobody’s perfect.

In writing something one anticipates a readership even if that reader is only ourselves. Nobody looks at a cup, functional or not, without seeing in it the idea of drinking something or containing; the same concept goes for how nobody actively writes a word without the idea of its being read. So, drafting a work lets one be read well. It is an opportunity to make sure that what has been written is understood just as the author wanted it to be understood.

We’d certainly be at odds if we set out to find a work of literature that hasn’t seen at least a draft or two. If we consider Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, for instance, we discover that these epic poems were composed approximately 400 years before the written word; there is a long and famous passage in the Iliad that lists all the Greek ships that set sail for Troy, among these ships is an Athenian ship (and a few others) which is surprising as Athens wasn’t a city state in Homer’s lifetime. The fact is is that Homer’s famous epics existed in oral tradition and were passed by word of mouth and in such a way were they refined by a long oral tradition. In fact, when we consider the works of the Greeks it is important to note that many surviving Ancient Greek texts were preserved solely in Arabic in Arabian libraries after the Great Fire of the Alexandrian Library wherein many original texts in their original language were lost to us forever. Only in the Renaissance were these many missing texts rediscovered and retranslated into Greek from Arabic.

What am I getting at? I am suggesting that essence is the lion’s share of a literary work. The order of words in a piece of prose or poetry might be moving and very well put, but the aftermath of a book is its essence. Very few of us in our modern era remember the exact words as they fell out in a paragraph, poem, or block of text; what we are more apt to remember is the moral, feeling or information in a text.

Thus, an author is at odds to make that moral, feeling or bit of information memorable and palpable. This view is in direct opposition to that old high school feeling of, drafts? I don’t do drafts. My poems/stories express how I felt while I wrote them. If I change them now the feeling will be destroyed. Drafts allow that feeling to move from a personal and potentially closed experience to a universal and transmutable experience. After all, to deny a readership is to deny the meaning of the written word.

-Christopher J. Johnson