Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The process of writing

At a creative writing masterclass recently I was told that a great novel is not written but edited. Get you first draft down quickly, we were told, but then accept that by the time you have finished editing it probably less than 25% of the original will be left. Someone asked if that was always the case and the workshop leader, a very successful novelist, said perhaps if the first draft had been written extremely slowly and carefully then more of it would survive the editing process.

That got me thinking about the process of writing, and whether speed and fluency or meticulous care is more likely to produce works of genius. The problem is that there are examples on both sides, to the extent that I can see no clear conclusion. In poetry, Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth is a shining example of the value of redrafting and editing. I liked to show students images of Owen's various drafts of this poem, complete with Sassoon's suggestions (the 'Doomed' of the title was one). One such draft is below:
and it demonstrates wonderfully the creative mind at work.  On the other hand John Keats' On the Grasshopper and the Cricket was reputedly written in a pub on Green Lanes in a competition with Leigh Hunt to write a sonnet against the clock. 

The world of novels presents similar extremes. James Joyce's Finnegans Wake took seventeen years to write; Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol six weeks. Perhaps neither is the greatest novel ever written, and there is unquestionably a difference in length, but each has been hailed at one time or another as a work of genius.

As to my favourite author, although evidence on the subject is scant I am inclined to think that Shakespeare tended more towards the speedy and fluent than the meticulous and painstaking. He was clearly a very busy man and play-scripts would have to have been produced to a strict schedule with first nights looming. There are also fairly frequent internal inconsistencies, plot holes and loose ends that a more careful editing process would surely have eliminated. I am therefore inclined to think that Shakespeare, like Dickens or Keats, wrote fast.

So how can two such radically different approaches each lead to works of genius? Perhaps the answer lies in ideas explored in Incognito-The Secret Lives of the Brain and elsewhere. It seems that our unconscious mind is capable of greater complexity and creativity of thought than we may sometimes suspect. The advice we were given, that it is editing not writing that creates great literature, is predicated on the idea that it is the conscious mind- the dominant partner in the editing process- that is the key to greatness. Certainly the idea has some merit. In writing Anthem for Doomed Youth Owen, I believe, wrote from the heart (or under the direction of his unconscious mind, which means the same) but then harnessed his conscious mind, and Sassoon's, to look critically at what he had written and to improve it beyond measure. Keats had no time for that, and it was through harnessing the immense creativity of his unconscious mind that he wrote his sonnet. 

Dickens, I am sure, cannot have had complete control from his conscious mind as he wrote. Many of his great novels were written as weekly serials and I am sure that a lot of the time he was flying by the seat of his pants (to use an anachronistic metaphor) in writing them. Kate Perugini said of him that "He had no doubt a strong natural instinct for art" and for me that is simply a description of someone harnessing their unconscious mind to create great literature.

Of course the picture gets muddle when you factor in notions of 'the Great Artist.' On the one hand the idea must be preserved of the creative genius who suffers for his art, so a Stephen King or a Terry Pratchett, who can churn out novels with the efficiency of a production line is derided in comparison with a Vikram Seth, who confirmed in 2009 that his sequel to A Suitable Boy would be published in 2013. On the other hand, some seem to feel, the truly great artist should be above the whole tedious business of editing, so that every stoned-out rambling should be preserved unedited and unspoilt for all eternity.

For me, as so often, it is Shakespeare who provides the model of true genius. A craftsman rather than an 'artist' he worked against the clock, writing quickly to pay the bills. And to do so he called upon the immense wealth and creativity of his unconscious mind. I see him staring blankly out of the window and then bending over the page and scribbling "To be or not to be, that is the question..." the beauty of the words forming naturally and instinctively in his mind and in his hand as he writes.

OK it's a cliché, but it's one I like to think might represent the truth.


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