Here’s a familiar truth about writing that has become fresh and new for me: writers are always learning how to write.
When the shelter-in-place orders were issued, I decided this was an opportunity to work on my long-delayed book about my favorite Shaw plays: Pygmalion and Major Barbara. My goal was to write two chapters by September 1. (I’d already written one chapter and lots of fragments of chapters. Lots and lots of them.)
It’s August 26, and I’m happy to report that I doubled my output: I’ve written four chapters. Well, I’m not that happy about it!
Here’s what happened: I’d planned to write a chapter about drama theory and another one about language theory. The language chapter was so long that I decided it had to be two chapters. And then it became three chapters.
There were many 3 AM writing sessions when an idea couldn’t wait for sunrise for me to start exploring it on paper. This has been a tiring summer. But it’s also been exhilarating! I’ve had tremendous fun playing with all the new ideas.
What I really want to do today, though, is to talk about something I learned from all this. Here it is: every time you sit down to write, go back to the beginning and read what you’ve already written.
I don’t know where that idea came from. It seemed like a huge waste of time. As a chapter got longer, I kept going back to the first paragraph – 10 times, 20 times, 30 times. But there were some huge payoffs. First, those early paragraphs kept getting better. All that fine tuning really helped!
More important: I stayed focused on the big idea that was driving the chapter. I had very little trouble with detours and non sequiturs. My writing had the energy that I always aim for – and don’t always get.
There’s something else I learned. I stumbled onto some writing advice from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Guess what Hemingway said to do? Always go back to the beginning before you start the day’s writing.
It’s great advice: try it!