Friday, August 22, 2008

Muzzling Your Inner Editor (continued)

It is 6 a.m. as I write this. I am sitting out on the deck at the patio table, listening to the birds and the breeze in the poplars, watching the mist rise off the pasture, catching glimpses of the fat orange sun as it breaks through the treeline off to the east, and scribbling away in longhand.

This is my favorite time of day to write: in that quiet, calm hour that begins when the first rays of false dawn pink up the morning sky and ends when the rest of the world wakes up. I have no trouble being awake at this time. I don't need an alarm clock; I share my life with a large and rambunctious labrador/springer mix (a Labradinger?) who wakes up each and every morning with the unshakable belief that this is the day she will finally catch one of those cottontails down on in the garden. She whines me out of bed; I pull on my sweats and sandals and open the back door for her, and by the time she's given the rabbits a good run and taken care of her bio-business, I've taken care of mine, brought in the newspaper from the front step, and gotten the coffee going. Two pots: decaf for me, and fully leaded for the Missus. I grind the beans fresh each morning. I use filtered water. The regular beans go into Mr. Coffee, but I make the decaf on the stove, in a glass percolator. I love the way the scent of the fresh coffee wafts out from the kitchen when it's properly brewed and done.

I have not yet put my glasses on.

This is one of the little dodges I have developed for dealing with my inner editor. There once was a time when I had 20-15 vision, and under the right lighting conditions could see .30-caliber bullet holes in paper targets 100 yards away. That is only a memory now, although my distance vision is still better than most people's, but what's really failed in recent years is my close-in vision. My handwriting was always terrible, which is why I learned to touch-type at age 12. Now, without my glasses, it is utterly unreadable.

Reading, I've learned, is one of my inner editor's key triggers.

I used to think I was a night owl. I thought nothing of staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning, bashing away at some story until finally I found myself too tired to think and wandering around in verbal circles. I now realize that it's my inner editor who is the night owl, and that I am at my freshest, most creative, and least inhibited first thing in the morning. So the trick is to get up early, tiptoe around quietly, and avoid doing the things I know will wake him.

Hence, no glasses. If I have my glasses on when I pick up the morning newspaper, I'll start reading it, and if I start reading, my inner editor awakens. Same thing with the TV and the radio. They stay off. No scanning a passage from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader while I'm taking care of my biological necessities. Patricia Wrede tells me that when she's really stuck, she'll turn off her monitor, and try typing blind for awhile. I can achieve the same effect simply by not wearing my glasses.

There is another problem with the computer, as well. I have a really nice Dell laptop. I get a decently strong wi-fi signal out here on the deck. (My optical trackball also does some really entertaining things when the first rays of low-angle sunlight fall on it, but that's a story for another time.) But I've discovered that I simply cannot write first drafts on my laptop.

Why? Because with Windows XP, I not only get my text editing program, I also get everything else. And while I try to resist, I never succeed; pretty soon I'm taking just a few seconds to check my email, and then taking just a quick look at my six favorite blogs, and then doing just a quick pop-over to see what's new on Drudge and The Register today —

And by that point, I'm hosed, and fully into critical reader/editor mode. Besides, as nice as this laptop is, it's also a lot like an annoying, insecure girlfriend: always demanding attention. I find myself ignoring everything else and responding to the computer's need for constant input, first. I cannot, as I have just done with my pen, simply drop it and let it sit ignored, while I spend ten minutes dealing with a dog who's just informed me that we were not quite done playing fetch after all.

I have tried other alternatives. All of them work sometimes; none of them work all the time. I bought an old DOS-driven text-only 486 laptop at a thrift store a few years back, and for awhile, that worked. No internet; no email; no distractions. Eventually, though, I capitulated to the urge to start each writing session by re-reading what I'd written the day before, "just to come up to speed," and then I was lost. Or rather, stuck in edit mode again.

Working in small files and starting each day with a fresh file; sometimes that works. Sticking in a nonsense keyword at the point where I quit, and then starting the next day with a search for that keyword so that I don't have to re-read anything; sometimes that works. Over time, I've found that what works most consistently for me is to remember that I compose and revise in two distinctly different processes, and while my inner editor is a genius at revising, he's just in the way during the composition phase. So among other things, I've learned to compartmentalize my days. I read, revise, and edit in the afternoons and evenings, and try to reserve my mornings for composition and composition only.

Hence, these days I tend to write my first drafts in the early morning, in longhand, with pen on paper. My inner editor has been trained to recognize that these scribbled words are only a raw material, which he'll get to mangle later when I enter them into the computer, and he's content to roll over and go back to sleep for now.

Your inner editor has habits and behavior patterns, too. Study them; learn to recognize them. Most importantly, figure out ways to work with and around them. The most important thing to remember about a first draft is that it doesn't need to be perfect, but it does need to be done.

There's much more I can write about regarding composition vs revision — and I will, eventually. But the neighbor's kid has just called: it's the last day of summer session, her parents have left for work already, and Little Miss Latchkey has missed her bus and is hoping for a ride. Then, after that, I have commitments to deliver on, obligations to meet, and paying work to do.

The day begins.