Make Every Word Work for You, Part 2 with Barbara Davenport
Barbara Davenport has a class on Make Every Word Work for You on 3/25! Sign up now.
Write a vomit draft, then clean it up
A vomit draft is just about what it sounds like. You need to start the chapter/scene/ essay/ whatever. You have a general idea what you want to say, but you don’t know how to begin. Or you have this beautiful vision in your head of how the scene should work but there are a bunch of specifics that you haven’t worked out. You just start writing. Your vomit draft can be awful, & full of holes & notes to self like, ‘add stuff about shoplifting here.’ The important thing is you start and you keep going.
A vomit draft is like a construction site where the only thing that’s been put up is some 2×4’s that mark out where the walls will be. When you walk by a construction site and see those 2×4’s you don’t think, oh geez, that doesn’t look like a house; those guys are incompetents. You know it’s just the beginning.
The novelist Kent Haruf, who wrote Plainsong and half a dozen other novels, would pull a wool stocking cap down over his face so he couldn’t see, and then he’d write in longhand as fast as he could: ideas, scenes, details, whatever. He said, ‘It takes away the terror when you’re blind and you can’t go back and rewrite a sentence,” he said. ”It calls for storytelling, not polishing.”
A vomit draft makes an end run around your internal censor, that terrifying editor in your head that keeps telling you that what you’ve written isn’t good enough. Writing the VD is the implicit answer to that censor: Of course it’s not good enough. It isn’t meant to be. It’s just a vomit draft.
When you’ve written it, raise your hands and back slowly away from the computer. Leave it alone at least overnight. When you come back to it, you’ll usually find it’s not as awful as you thought it was. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but the important thing is that you’ve got something down, & now you have something to work with.
Your vomit draft is likely to end up with throat-clearing words: those ahems, phrases and sentences that talk around the subject as you’re figuring out what you want to say. They show up especially when you’re writing about something that’s painful to recall. That’s okay. You start where you can start.
But now you’ve come back and you want to make every word work for you. Those sentences that circle around what you want to say without saying it have to go.
Look for the first sentence that really wades into what you’re writing about. It might be your second sentence or it might be three paragraphs down. Let’s say you’re writing memoir, and now you’ve come the scene where you realize that you can no longer live in your marriage. You start the scene at the end of the work day, clearing off your desk, walk out to the parking lot with Betty, your manager and Anne, your best friend at the clinic. Picking up your boys at day care. The drive home, with the detour where they’re repaving the old road out of town. Opening the door to your apartment. The shades were still drawn and the room smelled of stale cigarette smoke. I knew how the evening would go. That’s where the scene starts: where you show your reader what you see, what it brings up in your mind, and between the lines, your feelings about it all. Everything before this is throat clearing. Your job is to get to that place much quicker.
We’ll be talking about vomit drafts and other techniques to help you make every word work for you on Saturday, March 25, 10am to 1pm at San Diego Writers. You’re invited to join us.
Barbara Davenport is the author of Grit and Hope, A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program That Helped Them Aim for College, UC Press, and as Barbara Rosof, The Worst Loss, How Families Heal from the Death of a Child, Henry Holt. She’s written for Voice of San Diego, the Reader, CityBeat, the Christian Science Monitor and some exceedingly obscure lit mags. She teaches writing in private groups and in individual consultation. She has a special interest in helping writers learn to edit their work.