For a writer, the taunt of a blank page has its own wing in the hall of fame for life's frustrations. It is not as large or well-funded as the wing dedicated to commuter traffic in southern California or Houston because a lot of writers have just walked away from the blank page rather than acknowledge its existence. (The presence of the blank screen just sends us to Twitter or we walk away from the computer with a sudden urge to defrost the freezer or we return to the keyboard update the cover art on our iPods.)
The first draft, however, lingers on the lower half of that ballot. It poses its challenges, especially when one expects or aspires to nail the project on the first go. Michelangelo's David does not betray signs of erasure or a red line to self. I have never seen David and ought to read more about it, but on first blush it is one of those icons of the successful first go at a work of art. In reference to David, it is often said that Michelangelo just carved away the inessential parts of the stone, asserting the possibility that David was just in there waiting as if a fairy tale victim. While Michelangelo's comment about the essential is valuable, the lingering image of the dormant solid subject waiting for release may not be a healthy one. I believe there were points in the process where Michelangelo had creative or technical decisions to make and that he was not merely in the thrall of the medium.
Creative history is rife with examples of the spontaneous creation, but the reality is that there are very few immaculate creative conceptions. There are stories of movies shot from a first draft of the screenplay. "Yesterday" came to Paul McCartney in a dream. There is a history (or series of urban legends) of fully realized arrivals. These stand out because of their utter uniqueness and ought not be the gauge for assessing our own creativity. These instances can also be a curse. It brings to mind a story of a weekend golfer who tees it up for the first time of the year, stares down the fairway, waggles over the ball and cranks it straight on a long, arcing 270-yard shot with the first swing of the season. Perfection, right? The golfer drops his head in more disgust than elation and in response to his foursome's puzzlement says, "That's gonna be in my head all year now."
There are first drafts or attempts in creation of something and during those first drafts you are putting the clay or the jigsaw pieces on the table to see what you have and what you can do with it. It is not going to be pretty and sadly it is not going to be as easy taking the lid off the Play-Doh or the puzzle and dumping it on the table. And then turning the pieces over.
There is the need for a process and a need for regular practice as well. One challenge may be finding and cultivating the patience to stay at something when you believe you have a fully realized conception of what you want to do and that all you have to do is dump it out. That may be the very thing that makes the blank page as daunting or taunting as it is. When you stare at it, you may know the very thing you want to write but you are trying to find the seam in a rather austere or antiseptic sci-fi setting that will reveal the door into the product that you want to find. So you stare at the page or screen scanning your thoughts with the tactile sensitivity of a safe-cracker but can't find the purchase on the product that you are hoping for. When writing the quest for that combination of voice, angle and rhetorical grab to start your great novel it is probably akin to trying to crack the safe at Fort Knox with a pair of oven mitts on your hands and a Fisher Price stethoscope to reveal the movements of the tumblers.
- Try working from the assumption that there will be a second draft minimum. This ought to take some pressure off the quest for the ideal starting point.
- Consider where you are and start where you are at. You have the best chance of harvesting the thoughts or ideas that are clearest to you.
- Write the best part first. The sooner you have this down the more time you have to polish it and the greater impact it has on the rest of your project.
- Enjoy the freedom that comes from knowing that it is for your eyes only and make a mess of it. Write yourself instructions along the line of "I need to put the description of the monster's breath here" and move on to what you are doing.
Depending on what you are working on, you may be a few months getting that first draft out and what you want to do is get into the state of flow (You knew that word was coming, didn't you? I have heard it often enough that I think that after a drink or two I can even say Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's name accurately) so that you are creating or doing in an uninhibited manner. When I am writing fluently my hands are banging away on the keyboard as if I were at the piano and on many occasions there is music playing to set an air piano mindset. With photography it is very much about getting into flow. I am not sure if the photos that come from that state of flow are consistently strong but the state of mind and movement I get into as I head out my door with nothing more in mind than following colour, there is the sense of clearing my thoughts or my palate to do other things with a great sense of awareness.
Speaking of photography, if you wish to create in other media, the concept of the first draft still exists. There are the loose faint sketches of form and overall composition in the visual arts that will provide the core of what you proceed to finish. Even in photography, there are shots taken to merely determine exposure or depth of field. In more complex photographs it may take a significant length of time for a photographer to capture the image that they have in mind when they begin the shoot. I can recall an instance where I first attempted a shot in February 1996 and had to wait until December 1998 to get it. The film I used was damaged during the processing and - the pictures being taken on holiday - I had to wait until I returned there for the shot. When I set up for the shot I had in mind, I took about eight shots, but I knew that the first handful and the last two were not going to be the shot I wanted.
Setting aside the goal of the completed product or project and getting into the grit and grind of getting what is in you out of your head and soul and in front of you so you can work with it can, hopefully, be freeing. Granted it may be as "freeing" as pushing around a wheelbarrow full of rocks, but they are out there for you to work with.