Julian Barnes, on Writers’ Complaints and the… Seductiveness of First Drafts

Julian BarnesFrom an “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review:


Is writing easy for you? Perelman said that there are two kinds of writers: those to whom it comes easily and those for whom every word is a drop of blood being sucked out. He put himself in the second category. What is it like for you?


I’m not very sympathetic to the bloodsucking complaint, because no one ever asked a writer to be a writer. I’ve heard people say, Oh, it’s so lonely! Well, if you don’t like the solitude, don’t do it. Most writers when they complain are just showboating in my opinion. Of course it’s hard work — so it should be. But would you swap it for child-minding hyperactive twins, for instance?


One can like the result but not necessarily the process, don’t you think?


I think you should like the process. I would imagine that a great pianist would enjoy practicing because, after you’ve technically mastered the instrument, practicing is about testing interpretation and nuance and everything else. Of course, the satisfaction, the pleasure of writing varies; the pleasure of the first draft is quite different from that of revision.


The first draft is fraught with difficulty. It’s like giving birth, very painful, but after that taking care of and playing with the baby is full of joy.


Ah! But sometimes it isn’t a baby, it’s something hideous and malformed; it doesn’t look like a baby at all. I tend to write quickly when I’m on the first draft, and then just revise and revise.


So you rewrite a lot?


All the time. That’s when the real work begins. The pleasure of the first draft lies in deceiving yourself that it is quite close to the real thing. The pleasure of the subsequent drafts lies partly in realizing that you haven’t been gulled by the first draft.

(Quoted, in part, at the excellent Work in Progress blog of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. While I agree with Barnes’s sentiment, and love the way he put it, I’m embarrassed to admit that what drew me there was the blog post’s title. I thought it was going to be some erudite commentary on the Talking Heads song.)

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  1. Oh I like that! One of my favourite authors writes my way, scribbling madly on the first draft and then revising endlessly. Also like the idea of applying this quote – “testing interpretation and nuance” – to writing.

    (first captcha word: liegelord !)

    • Hi, Deniz! I too really zeroed in on the analogy to the pianist’s practice sessions. If you think of revision as a practice session in which you’re free to try out different variations of — improvisations on — the original, suddenly the whole task seems less threatening and, well, all too often dull.

      When you say “scribbling madly,” do you mean you do first drafts in longhand? I did that for a looooong time. But it was almost the only writing I was doing that way anymore — email in place of letters, using debit/credit carts and online payment services rather than a checkbook, etc. Once my handwriting started to slip, and my fingers to tire more easily, I got out of THAT habit fast. :)

      The gods of reCaptcha are definitely telling you something!

  2. Yes, longhand! I can’t seem to write fast enough to get the ideas down if I’m on the computer, because I keep stopping to fix typos, play with the font, etc.

  3. Ah, we all love JB!

    I find the writing comes very easily. But sometimes reading what I’ve written can be very hard.

    • I go through alternate reactions to my stuff, too — not in a simple “sounds good/sounds awful” way, but more like a “sounds good/sounds awful/sounds good/sounds awful/[etc.]” way. This roller coaster makes it emotionally tricky to decide when to circulate something to other readers (professionals or not), as a burst of confidence can be followed in short order by a What was I THINKING?!? crash.

  4. I love writing and rewriting. I hate my doubt in what I’ve written.

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