Earlier this week I reached my year goal to write 240,000 words. That is no mean feat; it’s the equivalent of four, 60,000 word novels.
But where had all my words gone? I certainly didn’t write four novels. I did write short stories, and the first draft and half of a second draft of a novella. None of these could justify such a large word count. The rest must have been those words lost to the ether, the words which get laid down and end up not being part of the final draft.
This made me think of hidden work: work which goes on behind the proverbial curtain, which the audience rarely, if ever, sees. For instance, consider a novel. What people see of a novel is usually the finished product, the beautiful cover and the bound pages. All the work that went into that remains hidden, unseen, except to the writer and their friends and confidants.
The same is true with all writing. It is work which is mostly hidden. You write two or three drafts of a story. Only a quarter of the words you put down make the final cut. Not to mention the work you don’t finish. Those 240,000 words of mine were proceeded by at least two books which I didn’t complete.
And that’s the nature of the craft. It’s not a sad thing. It’s simply true. And all of these words written and unwritten, the starts and stops, triumphs and challenges, are part of the process.
I think the real sad thing is our veneration of the final product. We honor the finished book in all its printed glory. We are a very product based culture, where we do not consider that results have taken place unless we have physical proof. You haven’t written a book until it’s published, for instance. You haven’t completed a short story until it’s in print. But 80 – 90 % of writing his hidden work, the work you cannot see but which is difficult and demanding.
This product based approach is obviously such a limited understanding of writing, of the primary, and hidden, work of the craft. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were to look at finished novels and ask the writer “how many drafts did it take you to reach this final draft?” or “how many words, in total, did you write for this book?” or “did your inspiration change as the book did?” Better yet, wouldn’t it be lovely to showcase earlier drafts of a published work, or offer limited edition early drafts, so readers had the opportunity to glimpse that process?
These questions and displays would honor the nature of hidden work, and the nature of writing itself to be dynamic and ever changing. At the very least these things help adjust our mindset and make us think more deeply about work, writing, and what is seen or unseen.
At any rate, I would like to see hidden work more acknowledged and appreciated in my culture at large.
Until then, I will keep plowing on, content with my hidden work until the day it becomes less so.