WORKING FOR SURPRISE:
On Running, Prescriptive Teaching, and the Language of First Drafts
A Poetry Craft Essay
by Devin Kelly
For many writers, the first draft of a work can be either something magical or something they just have to step over to get to the next draft, and the next one. Devin Kelly celebrates the first draft and questions the fetishism of revision.—Grant Clauser, Editor
There are two things I do nearly every day without fail: write and run. I like to talk and think about them together because, to me, they are twin feats of both discipline and imagination. Growing up a competitive runner, never very good compared to the other people I competed against, I learned to value the sport as a way to keep me both grounded and honest. Your body has a way of letting you know how well you’ve treated it. Or how poorly. Lining up for an ultramarathon, I view the months of training prior as a succession of drafts. Practice gives me an idea of what to expect out of a race, but I like to leave room for surprise because the body, like a poem, holds more wonder than we can grasp. One of the reasons I race these long races is less because of some feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing, but more for the strange and wondrous moments of mental and bodily access that arrive without any warning.
A few days ago, I posted a thread on Twitter that began with the idea that sometimes your first drafts can be your best drafts. I was responding, in some ways, to a sort of celebration of the masochism and self-deprecation of writing that often gets circulated on social media. It’s not surprising to see people talking about how bad their first drafts are. “Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can,” Anne Lamott writes in the canonical Bird by Bird, a seminal work on the craft of writing. Such a narrative is familiar: you write something you might think is wonderful, you put it away, and then you return to it and realize that it is a god-awful pile of shit. I don’t have any real qualm with this kind of narrative other than…well, maybe I do. I’d like to see another narrative celebrated (at least alongside it!): that of the surprising and wonderful first draft.
Before I go on, I want to say that there are different kinds of work, and that both discipline and work can look like many different things. Sitting down to write at 6 in the morning every day can be a kind of discipline. Writing a stream of conscious narrative can come from a place of discipline. The ability to structure and offer discipline to your life can come from privilege, whether that’s the privilege of money, or time, or job security. Some people create discipline out of lives that are filled with work.
About 23 miles into a recent 50-mile race last November, I began walking. A few miles prior, I had entered the marathon-long stretch of canal towpath that twirled and rolled alongside the Potomac River. I was in roughly thirtieth place in a field of close to a thousand and positively geeking out, excited for the soft and flat surface that extended outward like a dream for miles upon miles. Once on the towpath, I settled into a rhythm and tried to quiet my breathing. A few miles rolled by right near seven-minute mile pace and then, with the sudden sharpness of a bird’s quick descent from sky to ground, I stopped. No reason. No labored breathing. I just did. Other racers appeared behind me, emerging from the misty air, and passed me by. First one, then more. I was doing calculations in my head, trying to figure out how much time I had lost, how much I would have to salvage. And then I stopped this, too. I breathed. I walked forward. And then shuffled. And then one foot became two and those feet became meters and then, finally, those meters became miles.
There was a moment in that time of stoppage that was full of self-pity. I looked back on all I had done in preparation, this series of little drafts, and then looked at my not-moving feet, and felt this looming sense of anger and desperation and pity, that this event was not turning out the way I planned. I don’t know how you move on from those feelings other than by simply moving. As I shuffled back into the race, I began to create new goals for myself, to let myself be surprised by the present moment – the ache lifting from my legs after a warm cup of broth, the man and his dog knee-deep in the shallows of the river, a kindness-mirage.
I’m comparing running to writing here because each is a kind of work that offers access to different kinds of presents, in the sense of both time and gifts. And it takes work. How that work looks, though, and the effects of such work, can vary from writer to writer. When I brought up some thoughts about this via twitter, Natasha Oladokun, one of my favorite contemporary poets, mentioned how Li-Young Lee sometimes asks himself, “What impulse was I privileging in draft #2 that’s been killed by draft #17?” What a generous and self-interrogating thought, to understand that the work of working on something doesn’t always make that something better. Runners face a similar kind of problem in the build up to high-endurance races. A succession of heavy-mileage weeks can burn out one’s legs and leave one in worse shape, even when they’ve been running more. It often takes a kind of generous and inquisitive listening to one’s body in order to perfect that type of long-distance training.
Years ago, I arrived at my MFA program without having taken a single creative writing class in college. Unfamiliar with the rhetoric and dynamics of workshops, I grew to lament the idea of process. I looked at the specific edits fellow students gave me for my stories and knew that if I took each one, I’d have some jumbled mess of prose that hardly resembled me. I looked at other students who carried around the same story from workshop to workshop, and how it morphed and changed but never grew to be anything that resembled what the carrier wanted. I shook myself repeatedly, trying to remind myself that it’s not always about the story we tell but rather about how we come to it, and what we open ourselves toward, and what reveals itself to us in the process. I don’t really write to understand so much as I write to accept my own fundamental state of misunderstanding. Likewise, I don’t run a race to finish it. I run a race to dwell in the forever-encounter with the mystery of my body and my body’s place in this world.
So what now? I guess what I am trying to say is not that our first drafts are always absurdly beautiful, or that we should all stop revising, but rather that there is a language of surprise and generosity that exists within the confines of the first draft that can, at times, be beneficial to us as writers and people. And I think that what you want from your own writing depends on what you want from the world of writing. Sometimes the publishing world doesn’t celebrate the intrinsic adulations that writing for the self often brings about. Those feelings of surprise, inventiveness, generosity of self. “When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again,” Hemingway writes in On Writing. National Book Award winner John Casey literally titled his advice-for-writers book Beyond the First Draft. In a 1963 conversation with David Ossman, Denise Levertov said, “When one has written a first draft one may be elated, and one may wrongly think that it’s right as it stands.” Debating whether these statements, Lamott’s earlier one included, are right or wrong is a fruitless hill to die on, but it bears questioning why, for so long, successful and established writers and teachers have often privileged the final draft over the first. There is a long list of teachers I’ve had or listened to who repeatedly told me or an audience that the key to writing is revision. But how? And why? And is it possible for revision to look different for different people? And isn’t it just a little weird that, often, the people who talk so frequently about the tedious work of writing are people in relative positions of power? And why, finally, does revision have to prescribed as work, when, often, there is a pleasure in diving back into that heady water?
In the first few miles of the 50-miler that November, as fellow racers and I were all working out of our shuffles and tentatively making assessments about the state of our legs and their prospects for the future hours, we talked. It’s one of my favorite things about long races. You’re racing, and yet, in those early miles, you’re going slow enough to hold a conversation. What’s interesting, though, is how those conversations hardly ever are about the work done prior to the race. Rather, they’re almost always centered on stories of the joys of long races, and the failures, and the oddities we’ve encountered along the way. For all my competitive running life prior to these longer races, all my starting lines were filled with conversation about the work needed to get to those start lines. But when I started running far enough, into the reaches of the why-the-fuck-would-you-do-that, I don’t think anyone cared. I think everyone knew it was a given.
Poetry, to me, is that far reach, that ultra-marathon of writing. That wonder-world of experience and language. And, as such, this is how I approach a poem: knowing there is labor involved but instead choosing to privilege the moments of revelation that such labor provides and the moments of surprise and joy that, sometimes, possibly, excessive labor eliminates. I believe, then, in the unlimited possibilities of the first draft. I don’t believe that anything can possibly be a finished thing. And, as an aside, why the fuck would I want to finish anything? I am already tremendously scared of finishing this thing we call life. I believe that we are always a working-toward, a working-against, a working-with. Always a working, never at rest. Always aware of how little our knowing takes away from the sheer depth of our unknowing. Understanding this, I believe a first draft can be an accurate replication of whatever a poet might be working toward, simply because I believe that a first draft contains within it so many things that do not look like work but, in fact, are. A thought struggled with for weeks. A moment observed and then held. A long walk taken through the night. Why not privilege this kind of thinking about poetry alongside, not instead of, our thinking of craft, and work, and structure, and time? Why do some teachers prescribe a craft that only works toward some or one of these things? Why not privilege surprise too, a labor that does not look like writing, a generosity of self-belief? Is it because these things are not as teachable as form?
I don’t relate to any sort of prescriptive advice about poetry, mainly because I don’t think there is such a thing as a good poem, especially in relation to the world outside the reader. I think a poem can be good at things that we prescribe as certain aims of poetry, and can, more importantly, be of a sort of intrinsic good for the poet. But to privilege the value of re-writing a poem toward a more prescriptive and extrinsic goodness over the value of simply discovering and expressing that poem within and through the self in the first place is, I think, a dangerous thing. I’ve heard and read discussions of craft that prioritize the extrinsic value of publishing rather than the intrinsic value of writing a poem that helps one move through one’s life, or memory. This is the dangerous and beautiful nature of the poetry world. It is an art form that exudes its limitless and boundless opportunity. A poem can be as tightly-wound as a sonnet and as excessive and explosive as a free verse poem whose lines run off the page. And even a sonnet can move through many iterations and experiments. Read Petrarch next to Bernadette Mayer and see this. It’s a beautiful thing.
When I do teach poetry, I focus on aspects of permission and surprise. I want students to understand that those small, hard-to-grasp moments when you write yourself through a door you never could have opened before into an exact description of a feeling are small miracles. I want to help students create a space within themselves that is permissive and generous, that gives them the access to move through moments that might be harder to move through without poetry. How this looks is different for each student, and that, I think, is the beautiful hardship of teaching poetry. There are a lot of wrong ways and few right ways. But I can say this: Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to look out a window at the setting sun and make up words for the vast spectrum of ever-changing colors you see. Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to think of the first time you felt deeply scared that the sky would suck you from the ground and how that feeling grew in you, unprompted, a land-swell of fear. Ask me how to write a “good poem” and I will ask you to gather your vegetables and neck bones and chicken stock and come to the next class with a stew for all of us to eat.
Devin Kelly is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the books Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (CCM). He works as a college adviser in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem.