The ability to allow sloppy prose to fill the page, ignore MS word’s blood-red squiggles and green-grammar nagging is certainly an act of faith. When I first tried this method, I had strong doubts that I’d understand my early drafts, much less find anything of value in them to make the effort worthwhile. This was not the case. Instead, I found myself able to decode haphazard gibberish days, weeks, even months later. Discovering meaning in messy drafts led me to create them with abandon. Now, I write them with a feeling that’s suspiciously close-kin to confidence; where I once feared drowning in a sea of noise, I now find, on the worst of days, the lack of comprehension only reaches my waist.
Against the repeated warnings of my attorney, I’m going to argue that fiction writers not only listen to but trust the voices in their heads. Of course, for some of us this may not be the best guidance – but let’s imagine Joe Stalin adjusting the garnish of a picture-perfect omelet in the foreground (ignore the charnel house just behind him) and talk some serious shop. After all, writers who aren’t ruthless in the pursuit of crafting better fiction cannot hope to produce work that’s even remotely interesting. And, frankly – if writing a story doesn’t strain your emotions, if it doesn’t make you feel somewhat vulnerable, you’re probably not doing it right.
But what about the worst of writing sessions? What about the crabbed notes scratched out during some constipated-creative drought? What about fever scrawling, produced in a cold sweat with three bottles of Robitussin down the gullet and a Thrill-Kill Cult track blasting on auto repeat? How can I argue something worthwhile can come from the hot mess generated in such a state? I don’t know how it happens. It just does. In the majority of my roughest of drafts, I can locate patterns of meaning within the noise. More importantly, these patterns often lead to something raw and genuine: unlikely angles, weird points of entry, or disconcerting descriptions that I’m unlikely to produce otherwise.
Watch this hustle to be clear: I’m not saying the explosive, bottled-up frustration I describe is something universal, normal, or healthy. Nor am I prescribing some insipid activity like free writing or the use of chemicals. How you do what you do is your business. What I’m advocating is the hyper-development of negative capability. I’m advocating a wholehearted embrace of ambiguity and faith that the chaos and clamor of the roughest draft might lead to improvements and innovations that are substantive and worthwhile.
Don’t limit yourself to trusting the drafts that are going well; shit – those are cause for celebration. Instead, trust there is something worthwhile in those scrawled pages damp with coffee or that word document typed all in caps. What’s worthwhile may end up being the majority of what’s on the page, or it may only be a fragment; but trust that something of value will happen within the noise. Then get loud.
AJ Ferguson holds an MFA in fiction from Florida Atlantic University where he teaches writing. Most of his free time is spent working on a novel-in-progress and various other projects. You can keep up with his most recent forays and misadventures at: aj-ferguson.com.