Wednesday, August 5, 2015

E.L. Doctorow and Me

First an apology. I didn't post on my blog last week. The complications from shoulder surgery ended up creating a lot of pain and there were any things fell off the wagon. It wasn't that I didn't get around to writing a post--it was that I didn't think of it at all until Friday. So forgive me, please.

I hope you enjoy reading about what Ed Doctorow taught me.

When I had newly decided to become a writer, I signed up for a writing conference at which a member of the faculty was E.L. Doctorow. He was a congenial man with a ready laugh, a sparkling wit, and best of all for fledgling writers a passionate interest in teaching the craft of writing.

At any conference you find those in the faculty who for whatever reason don’t make themselves available except in staged opportunities—giving a talk followed by a question and answer session. These can be well-done talks that make a true attempt to provide useful information to greenhorns, or they can be light, entertaining “feel good” talks. And then there is that rare breed of natural-born teachers who mingle and make themselves available for one-on-one questions. I recently attended Thrillerfest and found David Morrell a wonderful example of this later type. Nab him in passing for a question, and he’ll answer in full.

Doctorow was like that and during the course of the workshop he provided one of the most valuable lessons I ever got at a writing workshop. Each evening one of the faculty would give an hour lecture on the subject of his or her choice. When Doctorow’s time came, he said he was going to give us a gift—he was going to read at length from the first draft of his work in progress. For the next hour we were dazzled by sparkling passages of prose. It was intimidating hearing what this man thought of as “first draft.” To me it sounded polished and ready for publication.

Later, at the bar, he asked me what I thought of the reading. I told him that I was intimidated and thought he had been showing off. He was taken aback and insisted that wasn’t his intention at all. He wanted to illustrate the random nature of what comes out in first draft—the little riffs you go on that really have nothing to do with the story, the playing with words and ideas, the exploring of a character or situation to see where it will lead.

Only when the book, Loon Lake, came out did I understand fully what he meant. What survived from all those golden words he read that night were a few sentences—because those were the ones that actually meant something in the book.

I’ve just written a 100,000 word first draft, and my writer’s group is wondering when they’ll get to see it. I told them it would be quite a while. The draft is full of those rambling asides that in the end will not make the cut, so why subject them to reading that? There may be perfectly good passages of prose in the draft that won’t make the cut because they have nothing to do with the book itself. It would be a waste of time and energy for readers to wade through things that I know won’t make the cut.

Learning to recognize what belongs—what is important to the book you want to write—is one of the hardest editing lessons a writer has to learn.  Doctorow gave us a gift when he put his raw words out on the page. Whether we accepted the gift was up to us.

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