Writing, E.L. Doctorow once told the Paris Review, is "like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." What he was talking about, of course, is process: following a line, a poem, a story, seeing where it goes. What else are we doing when we write? How much can we really know? The intention, the act itself, is one of discovery, of surprising not only readers but also ourselves.
This is the whole idea behind Draft: The Journal of Process, the fifth issue of which has just come out. Founded in 2011, and edited by Mark Polanzak, Rachel Yoder and Lisa Ciccarello, Draft has a unique mission: to reveal how the literary sausage gets made.
"In Draft," the editors explain, "we're interested in mechanics, techniques, approaches, triumphs, failures, concussive frustration -- everything that goes into crafting a publishable piece of creative writing through revision. We ask authors to reveal their tricks behind the illusions. To tell us how it's done, or try to." Contributors include Amy Bloom, Matt Bell and Roxane Gay.
The new issue is all poetry, showcasing work by Elisa Gabbert, Rauan Klassnik, Lara Glenum and Rodney Koeneke. Each writer gets a portfolio of sorts, featuring early and final drafts on facing pages, as well as an interview.
Gabbert's "I Even Feel Tired in My Dreams" reveals mostly fine-tuning, from draft to final -- a clearer sense of line breaks, a tightening of the focus, the point-of-view. Klassnik's "Sky Rat," on the other hand, suggests a more extensive intervention, with cuts and expansions that highlight its off-kilter sexuality.
What makes this interesting is how it reminds us of the fluidity of language, of expression, the way that, for the writer, nothing is ever truly fixed. This is the story told by, say, Walt Whitman, who revised "Leaves of Grass" at least half a dozen times over the course of his lifetime, or Raymond Carver, who published and republished a number of stories ("So Much Water So Close to Home," "A Small, Good Thing') in a variety of shapes and forms.
Writers, after all, are always revising; even this blog post has gone through its own particular set of edits and returns. It was only after I had written the sentence about seeing where a piece of writing goes, for instance, that I recalled Doctorow's great line about writing and driving and decided to start with it instead.
The point is that a piece takes shape in increments, by immersion, that creativity is a matter of being present in the most specific sense.
Or, as Glenum explains in the interview that accompanies her work in Draft: "I'm a cannibalizer. Or rather, my poems are self-cannibalizing. They mutate. They eat each other. When I need to write, I get graphomanic and hugely restless. I obsessively jot down words. Words jostle up against each other -- they become gluey objects that form little clusters, super-sticky monads. And then a bolt hits ..., and I'm working the page. Cramming the monads into each other. The more improbable and outlandish the coupling, the more I like it."