John McPhee returns in the April 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, writing about drafts, writerly moods associated with drafts 1-4, and searching for le mot juste.
“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. . . . What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.” (33)
This is quoted from a note to his daughter, Jenny, so I feel I should not quibble over word choices, but I will anyway: “knit at”? Can you “knit at” something? I suppose if I had a really expressive, aggressive knitter in the front row of my class, I might feel she was “knitting at” me, with more vigorous clicking of needles, when I said something she objected to. Do any of my knitting readers “knit at” speakers in faculty meetings, for instance, if you knit in such circumstances?
I thought this “awful blurting” notion sits a little oddly with the careful organizing detailed in the January piece, on structure. But on second thought, it sounds like it’s a close relative of my “focused freewriting.” When I know I need a section on a particular topic, I will “just write” about that topic, without worrying about the logic and structure of that section. But it does need to be about that topic, not the broader sort of just-keep-writing freewriting. McPhee plans his structure, and even starts with the first sentence, and then has to bring the writing into congruence with the structure and opening.
I notice also the degree of focus assumed here: that a writer has two or three hours a day to write*, and more time for thinking in a back-of-the-mind sort of way about what one has written. Many of the activities in which professors engage can be inimical to developing good prose (reading lots of student papers or decanal announcements or committee reports, for example).
*Luxury! we wrote a book in ten minutes a day, licking the typewriter keys clean at the bottom of a lake—we ‘ad to write on recycled plastic bags—and when we were done our department chairs assigned us to the assessment committee that met three times a week for four hours at a stretch for a full year.