Friday, November 20, 2009

Drafting Process Evolution

Like many writers I know, I am a pack rat when it comes to my work. I have boxes full of journals that go back to my teens and early twenties. I have the first booklets I made when I was around thirteen or fourteen, using my mom's electric typewriter. I copied poems I'd been given in school, "The Eagle" by Tennyson being one I remember...those talons described as "crooked hands," that last line, "And like a thunderbolt he falls"...ah...the drama! I loved the sound of the keys clacking that seemed to echo the sound of the words in the poems. I loved the precision required in the copying so I didn't have to start over or use the messy version of white out that existed in the early 80's. Then, after copying several of the masters, I included my own fledglings. I collected all of this in a school folder and titled my book, decorating it with unicorn stickers and magic markers.

In high school, I kept writing my own poems...about broken hearts mostly and full of horrific rhymes. I gathered these together in folders with three-hole tabs, again, making my own "books" out of my work. For the most part, I went through sheets and sheets of college-ruled loose-leaf paper in my drafts, even though I might not really be changing much. Each new word change required a new hand-written draft. Only when I felt the poem was "finished" did I type up my draft for my booklet.

When I started college as an undergrad the slow transition to personal computers had begun. St. Ben's installed its first computer labs around that time and we all carried around precious floppy disks and fought with the dot-matrix printers that seemed to jam constantly. While I still drafted poems on paper to begin, I moved to the computer for revision. This was when I first began saving each new draft with the title and a number, so that after several months I might have six or seven versions of the poem saved so that I could go back and revisit previous drafts if I took a wrong turn. Of course, I also printed each one out and kept it in a manila folder as well. That process stayed with me for well over a decade and took me into grad school and beyond.

I have always begun poems on paper (and still do), usually in a journal, most of which I have in boxes in the closet--heavy, heavy boxes. Once the poem takes on a shape and heft, I move to the computer. I cannot quantify what I mean by "shape and heft." It is different with every poem; it is an intuitive leap in my gut that says the poem is ready for the printer. Still, until the last year or so, I saved each new version as a new file in the poem's particular folder.

It dawned on me yesterday, that sometime in the last few years, I've jettisoned the saving of multiple versions on my hard drive. I still have the printed copies, which I date. However, I simply save over the original version on the computer now. I wonder if I do this because I now have a better grasp on my own voice and more confidence in my vision of the poem. I feel I take fewer "wrong turns" on the way to figuring out the poem's ultimate form. Do I eliminate some options by saving over the last version? Probably.

I wonder, too, how this shaping of poetry is different, if it is, from the the way writers of the pre-computer days shaped their work. I still print off my poems and hand-write many of my revisions on the page, although I know plenty of writers who do this on the computer. There is a visceral nature to the pen and ink that is lost for me on the keyboard. Wendell Berry wrote somewhere (and I apologize for not having the reference) about the physical link between the pencil in his hand and his imagination. For him, using any technology, even a manual typewriter, created a distance between the work and the creative center of his mind...a mind/body connection that was crucial to him, I guess. I've wondered about it myself ever since reading that in college. Now I wonder if this change in my drafting process results in stronger poems.

My drafting process exists in two technologies: blue-black rollerball gel ink scrawled in journals & black and white text in computer files. These technologies are symbiotic in my process, and I imagine that process will continue to evolve right alongside my evolution as a poet. While I used to worry about there being a correct way to do this drafting and revision, I think I may finally be in a place where I'm comfortable letting things develop in their own way and simply taking note from time to time about my process. I suppose if I ever take a drastic wrong turn, I will know I've run off the road by the heaping pile of rejection letters that will surely arrive in my mailbox, be it physical or virtual.

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