Hemingway once said “The first draft of anything is shit.” But how on earth would he know? Wasn’t Hemingway considered a Godfather of American Prose? Could such a consummate craftsman ever produce… in his own words… shit? He could. He did. And so should you, if you know what’s good for you.
As almost everyone knows, Hemingway published in a plain, direct style considered arresting for its lyricism and sparseness. But the key word here is “published.” Most people don’t know it, but that Hemingway “voice” we’ve come to know — the crisp, unadorned prose that made him a literary icon — didn’t come naturally to him. An obsessive revisionist, Hemingway could only produce his “voice” at the end of a long and arduous process. In other words, Hemingway only became Hemingway over the course of many drafts. And sometimes many, many drafts. Consider these examples:
“I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times,” he told aspiring writer, Arnold Samuelson, in 1934.
His novel, The Old Man and the Sea, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Nobel Committee cited the book when they lauded Hemingway with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. All well and good. But remember: Hemingway rewrote The Old Man and the Sea more than two hundred times before approving the book for release. Actually, it started out as a much longer novel, which Hemingway called The Sea Book. But the damn thing never seemed finished, event after it ran more than 800 pages, which the author revises obsessively. So finally, he decided to publish the book’s epilogue on its own. That portion we now call The Old Man and the Sea.
In 1956, Hemingway was interviewed in The Paris Review. Here’s a snippet of what got published:
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
So what does this prove? It’s time we dispel this ancient, potentially toxic myth that good art — hell, good anything made by man — simply pops into being, fully formed as Athena leaping from the cracked-open noggin of hoary old Zeus. In my experience, many fledgling and even some journeyman artists invest in this myth too readily. They protest that a project will look or sound “overworked” if you so much as glance at it more than once. Howling and thumping their chests about the importance of spontaneity, they refuse to consider that real spontaneity can only ever be rendered in art after serious planning and work.
Think about it. Did your favorite film simply drop to earth from heaven above? Of course not. It was mapped out over the course of years, during which it went through various phases: development, script drafts, location scouting, casting, pre-production, principal photography, second unit shooting, post-production, distribution, and so on.
What about your favorite performance by your favorite actor in that favorite film? Quite likely, that scene you love so much was one out of dozens of takes the director shot from various angles. It may have been the one your favorite actor hated the most. It may have been added last minute to fill in a gap, or cut down to nothing from 2 or 3 pages. Dare we go on? How do you think your favorite song, TV show, book, play, or opera were produced? By immaculate conception?
You see where I’m going with this. These days, most people have no appreciation for process. They don’t want to learn how a sausage gets made, they’d rather bite down on the casing and chew. In our instant-gratification society, the myth that brilliance comes easy has never been so ubiquitous, nor so damaging to artists. I know many young actors and writers, for instance, who became disenchanted with their craft for the unlikely reason that it wasn’t easy to master. And yet they still called themselves artists, which of course is inappropriate.
Imagine how that principle might play out in other disciplines: Would you take your sick child to a “doctor” who, as a medical student, attended one autopsy, hung out his shingle, and set himself up in a practice? Would you trust your important legal suit to an attorney who never went to law school or passed the bar exam, never cracked one textbook nor glanced at so much as a page or two before diving into case work? No.
We learn by doing. Always, always. Mistakes must be made for success to take root. That rule holds true both in life and in art. No lasting understanding of craft can be gained by nailing something the first time around, even if you should be so lucky. Which is why we must grant ourselves the indulgence of writing a raucously shitty first draft. Enduring a righteously shitty rehearsal. A fight with a loved one. Bad day at the office. The list goes on and on.
To call yourself a craftsman in any discipline, you have to imagine the finished product, then let it go and embrace the process of reaching it, staying open to changes along the way. As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, wrote: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.” Translation: nobody leaps from nothingness straight to completion. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The tortoise won that race, not the hare. Slow down. Commit to the learning, instead of the knowing. Commit to the road rather than the destination. The work is the means, the end, and the joy.
Do this over and over again, and who knows? You might surprise yourself. Whatever you end up producing — a book, a play, a scene, a song, or a life . . . well, it might not be what you first imagined it would be. But who knows? In the course of your exploration, you might discover something better.