A Bird’s-Eye View (a new essay about the writing life)
“Maybe you just need some distance.” Words often offered as a gentle suggestion when perhaps your writing isn’t going as planned. Maybe you’ve even said these words to yourself. You keep re-reading the same pages, changing a word or a sentence. Then putting the original word back in. Looking at other drafts and deciding you should have stayed with Draft #3. Or maybe Draft #5 is better. Or maybe…
Therein madness lies. Or at the very least, frustration.
But you have to stick with it, don’t you? Persevere. Now’s not the time to wimp out. You always knew that Draft #2 was your best. Maybe the ending from #4 could be tacked onto Draft #2 somehow. That ending was really good. Some of your best work.
You should spend the morning reading through all your drafts again. That’s the ticket. Then after lunch start a new draft, incorporating all the best parts of the other drafts. If only you could separate it all out in your head. Maybe you should print out each draft and read them all again!
Or maybe you need some distance. As in, “I’ve got to get the hell out of this office/ kitchen/ coffee shop, and get a new perspective.”
Close reading is valuable, of course, up to a certain point. Microscopic reading, even, done word by word, after you have a decent, completed draft. But reading the same pages over and over and never moving forward? Typing the same phrases in different order? I know whereof I speak, having several perfect hundred page drafts of a few different novels, never moving past that point. But, damn, those hundred pages are good. I could recite them to you I’ve read them so many times. Would you like to hear Draft #1 or Draft #6?
Real distance doesn’t mean just walking around the block a few times or going to the grocery store. The goal here is to avoid familiarity at all costs. Get your butt on a plane or train or bus or car, and go somewhere. At least go to a coffee shop in a different town. What would you work on if you weren’t writing that book you left behind? That first section of your book in the stale, predictable 7th draft.
Think about whether you are really writing what you want to write. Yes, you’ve invested time, and that’s no small thing. But maybe you’re stuck writing the same story about the same people or place over and over, and you just can’t stop yourself.
But you are somewhere else now. You are free of that story, those characters. Look around. There’s a lady walking by who is begging to be in a poem. There’s a situation that could be a short story unfolding at the table by the window. You are free. You are here to avoid familiarity. Think of the phrase “a bird’s-eye view.” To get that lofty view, the view of an actual bird’s eye, you have to fly. It’s all about a new perspective. The bird can see way more from a distance than up close.
When you are done flying/wandering (an hour, a day, a week?) go ahead and begin anew. Don’t go back to Draft #7. Draft #7 will still be there later. Draft #7 will be there until the end of days. What you write now doesn’t even have to be a “thing” yet. That’s the beauty of it. It can be a fragment, a poem, the start of a story, a character sketch. Maybe it will have its own Draft #7 someday. But for now, just start something else. Get out of your way and fly. A bird can see a whole world that way.