The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend. ~Isaac Bashevis Singer
When I was twelve years old, I finished writing my first novel. It was a teenage romance between a young, doomed girl and her guardian angel who comes to Earth to save her because he’s in love with her. In the days of romances like Twilight, some writers might be tempted to go back and rewrite, try to make a few dollars off of such a thing. I am thankful every day that the manuscript copy was lost.
For every year after that, I wrote a novel. At the time I wanted to be Christoper Pike, the weird, spacy kid’s R.L. Stein. I wrote the sort of books I was reading: trashy teenage novels, but ones that required I do heavy research into things beyond what I knew. In my first attempt at doing this in a less trashy manner and more serious one, I spent a winter researching the ’60s organization Students for Democratic Society. I (thankfully) lost this book, too. The fact that my family couldn’t afford a computer and I often used a wordprocessor with buggy memory was probably the greatest boon to my teenage writing I could have had.
All in all, I must have lost thousands of pages that I wrote. Probably hundreds of thousands.
In my first semester at New School University, I took a class on experimental writing. One day, the professor said that writers threw away about 80% of everything they ever ended up writing. For the first time ever, I was thrilled about all the pages and pages I’d lost. It did constitute about 80% or more of my writing. Despite the fact that I’d been published in newspapers before then, I suddenly felt like I had a reason to consider myself a real writer. And that reason was all the disposable writing I’ve done.
A trap that many young writers (including myself when I was younger) fall into is thinking that the first thing that comes off of their pens is pure gold. You write that essay in grade school and get 100% on it and get a big star sticker on it and mom hangs it on the refrigerator and you feel great. I think that’s the feeling that young writers try to replicate for years and years. That their pens are magic, that their thoughts are priceless, that they simply are writers, and what comes out of their pens must be great writing.
Not so much.
When I was 15, I began writing rough drafts on a manual typewriter, simply because I would HAVE to revise them before they went anywhere. When I wrote my first “adult” novel at ages 18-22, I literally had written 9 manuscript copies of it, each revised to a different state than the last.
In the last few weeks I’ve been writing a short story. I wrote it in a notebook first. I wrote notes, I wrote narratives as back story. I began it three times before I found the voice I wanted to use. Then, after I had finished that draft, I decided that colors in the contrasting scenes needed to play a more important part, and went back and put them in. Then I decided that since I had started off with a third-person narrator who had a very precise voice, I couldn’t use phrases like “the raised scars on her left arm,” but had to use phrases like “the fading atrophic scars on her left arm.” So it came out to be about 20 disposed-of pages for a six page short story. And did I mention how long I’d been carrying the idea around in my head, forming narratives and phrases around it?
We writers love our writing, or we wouldn’t do it. But if you don’t start to realize what’s good and what isn’t, the excess will drag down anything you create. You may have to write 15 novels to write one that’s readable to anyone but your friends and family.
When I was at community college, I received another great piece of advice about editing. A professor would tell us that creating a piece of writing was like tending to a rose bush. You had to prune it, or you were going to get something tangled, wild and ultimately roseless.
Hemmingway’s a lousy misogynist, but this is what he was talking about when he said, “Kill your babies.”
Something perhaps less brutal is, “Fill your wastebasket.”
To the top.
Then empty it and fill it again.
In the end, you’ll still have some good writing.