People have been asking me what I’m working on, and I’ve noticed how confused or even uncomfortable they’ve been when I’ve struggled to explain it to them. A friend, hearing me describe it several times to other people, told me that their discomfort is that I’m describing something outside their ken, and they have nothing to hold on to. Later, after I tried and failed to explain it to my mum, I had to consider that part of the problem was that I didn’t exactly know the answer myself, and that therefore I too was a little uncomfortable. So I set about figuring out the answer.
I have a technique I call zero-drafting, and it was born out of need to find a technique to write something when I knew I wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure exactly what that was. It existed in contrast to how I was taught to write, which is that you wrote a first draft and then edited it, and the way I was taught to write non-fiction was the three-paragraph essay, in which you state a thesis, prove the thesis, and then conclude with a transformed restatement of the thesis. And this works great when you have a thesis. But what happens when you don’t?
I discovered, through some stream of consciousness-type journaling that I did, that often I could sit down with a topic and write about it without knowing exactly what I wanted to say, and if I wrote long enough and honestly enough and sat with the discomfort and kept writing, often I would discover through that process exactly what it was that I was trying to say in the first place. I learned by doing, which you might imagine was something of a thrill, as well.
(I owe this technique to something Natalie Goldberg offers in “Writing Down the Bones.” She offers a technique of putting a title at the start of the page and then just writing and seeing what happens.)
The technique I am using now is to take zero-drafting to kind of an extreme. I am writing a great deal of volume and relinquishing immediate control over the word in several different ways. I’m not worrying too much about the immediate craft of the sentences, and I’m not worrying too much about the pieces’ logical structure and rhetorical thrust. For the former, I am trusting that I have developed my technique to the point that my sentences have some music to them even when I’m essentially improvising; I am also trusting that I can then find the music and bring it out and bring it out and bring it out until the pieces sing. And for the latter, I am trusting that when I discover what the piece is really about, I can edit myself into a structure that works effectively.
Using this technique in something like journaling is easy–I am writing for myself, and the point there is that writing is inherently worthwhile, and it’s not about being good, it’s about exploring something and learning and discovering and that having the writing exist is reason enough.
But in my writing-for-publication, I have tended to aim for a more controlled, carefully written first draft. Now, in letting go of a lot of that control, I am hoping for a few things. I hope to be able to find my way into saying interesting things before I exactly know what I think or feel about a given subject.
But I also hope that I will, through this process of letting go of a substantial amount of technical control at the get-go, find my way into spaces that I might normally not be willing to explore. That by taking chances with my technique I might be able to route around or through my discomfort with certain topics and dive more deeply into them. That I might, by letting go, write in a way that’s more vital and alive than what I’ve done until now.
I honestly don’t know if it’s going to work. I have a lot of fears. The first is that by relinquishing control of the works quality early on and trusting my editing abilities to iterate the work into solidity, that I’m actually at best making myself more work in the long run, and in the worst case digging myself into a hole that I just can’t get out of, a problem I could avoid by being more careful in the initial drafting.
I also worry that, rather than digging more deeply into a topic, rather than being able to find my way to the more startling conclusion, rather than discovering something I didn’t previously know, I will instead pump out work that is facile. That I’ll be using a lot of words to say very little.
So therefore I am practicing an even more profound surrender, I think. I am taking the risk that this experiment will fail, but that if it does, what I learn through the process will be sufficiently worthwhile anyway. I’ll be honest: it’s fucking scary. I know at the least that I’m out on a limb. But I also know this: I have lived safely at the base of the tree for a long, long time, so even being out on a limb is a positive change. And I know that I can’t move forward from here without finally starting to climb.