In his essay “After the Workshop: Transitional Drafts,” Robert Boswell presents a revision process that sounds downright tedious. Each new draft, he advises, should be written with only one or two problems in mind. The drafts, then, are transitional because they’re not complete drafts.
Boswell’s proposal involves a lot of hard work, but it is far from tedious. If writing and “finishing” a story is about crossing a river, then Boswell’s method provides a much better strategy than attempting to ford that river all in one go. Each transitional draft is like a stepping stone. You swim out to one. Rest. Then you let the river take you a little further downstream. Maybe you notice a turtle, pass some otters, and see a doe and her progeny sipping from the water. There’s another rock. Good, now where? The more time you spend on and in that water, the more of the river you’ll see. In other words, the more that you work at a story while also giving yourself up to it, the more of the story you’ll be able to receive.
The first piece in my portfolio for my application to MFA programs was a little five page fable or tall tale called “Ghosts and Gambling.” The first scene in “Ghosts” was written in January 2013 and the story was finished in summer 2013. I shopped this story around and received a nice virtual pile of form rejection letters. Ever friend I shared it with reassured me that the story was good and I shouldn’t be discouraged. Everyone, that is, until I showed it to a fellow MFAer, John Stintzi.
John gave me focused, pointed feedback. Mostly he asked questions. What does this mean? How does this affect the character? I knew for sure that the story was unfinished, but I had no idea at first how to tackle something that already felt set in stone by virtue of having sat around so long in print. I reread my colleague’s careful notes and stumbled on the answer: John had asked about description, suggesting that there were moments when my minimalist drive was more of a hindrance than a help.
I decided to take myself out of my first person narrator’s head and rewrite the tale in third person. I hoped that by forcing me to locate this character through action and setting instead of her inner life, the story itself would fill out and she’d become more “real.” I’ve never done something like this before: I’ve never gone back to a story I’d considered finished and played with something as major as the narrative point of view.
I started a few nights ago. The words come slower than they did last time. But they have more substance now, too. Instead of rushing toward my clever ending, I’m exploring each moment with my character. I’ve given her a name and positioned her in space and time. As a result, the story feels richer.
Of course, as soon as I finish this transitional draft, I won’t be surprised if another problem pops up. I don’t know what this story is about yet, and I might not know for a long time (or ever). And I’m deliriously happy about this. This rewriting is more joyful, more playful, more damned fun than (dare I say it?) any other kind of writing I’ve done.
Boswell recommends keeping each version around. He describes those early files of a story as, “little life rafts that permit me to take the plunge into deep waters.” I think I’ve grown gills and couldn’t be more pleased.