Ryan David Jahn has a stimulating post on the myriad ways our works fail, and the extent to which we can be embarrassed by our early efforts...or even, in retrospect, by our published efforts.
His assessment, like Paul Valery's observation about poems, is that a work is never really finished, only abandoned. The hope, I suppose, is that as we mature we do our reworking more completely and more expeditiously, and therefore abandon our fiction a little more closely to the ideal, unattainable, point of true completion.
I can't argue with that. But reading RDJ's description of his filing cabinets full of early stories and novels--works he now sees as having been nowhere near as good as they could have been--has made me reflect on the role of experience in our writing process.
I'm not talking about life experience here. I'm familiar with the belief that a wide experience of life and years of hard knocks are vital seasoning for a writer (though I'm not sure I entirely buy it. For every Ernest Hemingway or Jack London you can name, I can give you back a Stephen Crane or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or, best of all, an Emily Dickinson. Some writers get lifetimes of perspective from the merest crumbs of life experience.) What I think is often overlooked is writing experience--the sheer number and variety of works undertaken.
I've seen any number of writers spend years writing and rewriting the same novel, to the exclusion of all other projects, and this kind of dedication is often extolled as the kind of devotion that singles out the true writers--the Joyces, the Flauberts. Real writing is rewriting, we are told, and this is so widely repeated by writers that one must take it seriously. (Though I also take Byron seriously when he said, "...I can never recast anything. I am like the tiger. If I miss the first spring, I go grumbling back to my jungle again; but if I do hit, it is crushing.")
There are many metaphors and analogies for the novel, from Colin Wilson's "philosophical experiment" to the various architectural images on down to the concept of a journey or expedition. All are valid. And no one wants a sloppy experiment or a slapped-together cathedral or a stumbling-blind journey. Fair enough.
Yet there is a kind of knowledge and skill which cannot be gained by the meticulous reworking of a single novel. Failed novels and stories are, as RDJ notes, often blush-inducing (despite occasional flashes of quality). Yet I think these failures are valuable in terms of writing experience. The range of characters, the different approaches to style, the possible story structures--and all of the ways those can either fail or enhance a work--are the kind of bone-deep understanding that comes only from experience.
What's my point? I suppose I'm saying that, as everyone (except Byron) agrees, rewriting is vital. But so is first-draft writing itself. Most of us are standing atop a considerable stack of unpublished and unpublishable work. Do I wish I had stayed focused on improving that first novel I cranked out? Not really. I learned from my efforts at rewriting it, but I think I learned much more by moving on to the next, and the next...
And, who knows? Maybe I'll go back and do more rewriting on some of those old manuscripts some day.
Meanwhile, I'll go grumbling back to my jungle.