I’m often plagued with the phrase “If you can’t find the time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to do it a second time?” reinforced by Jack Kerouac’s philosophy of “first thought, best thought”
“By not revising what you’ve already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself: you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way. Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact? If he pauses to blow his nose, isn’t he planning his next sentence? And when he lets that next sentence loose, isn’t it once and for all the way he wanted to say it? Doesn’t he depart from the thought of that sentence and, as Shakespeare says, ‘forever holds his tongue’ on the subject, since he’s passed over it like a part of a river that flows over a rock once and for all and never returns and can never flow any other way in time? Incidentally, as for my bug against periods, that was for the prose in October in the Railroad Earth – very experimental, intended to clack along all the way like a steam engine pulling a one-hundred-car freight with a talky caboose at the end. That was my way at the time and it still can be done if the thinking during the swift writing is confessional and pure and all excited with the life of it. And be sure of this, I spent my entire youth writing slowly with revisions and endless rehashing speculation and deleting and it got so I was writing one sentence a day and the sentence had no feeling. Goddamn it, feeling is what I like in art; not craftiness and the hiding of feelings.”
-Kerouac on “first though, best though” Source: I Fear Brooklyn
and legendary achievements such as the SF short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” which was not only written in one sitting/one draft but also went on to win a Hugo Award. My experience as a cook hasn’t taught me any different, “You have to be perfect the first time, every time because we don’t have time for a second chance” as many of my chefs have told me over the years which became something I came to resent about the industry but made an imprint on how I shape my self as a creator.
I frequently feel like a man running out of time, being out of step with people of my generation and off the beaten path for what constitutes a reasonable existence, approaching thirty with next to nothing to show for myself other than a collection of scar tissue and a creative interpretation on the conventions of grammar and syntax.
I think frequently though about Kerouac’s process, regardless of his claim to write On the Road in one draft, more specifically one 120 foot long scroll he constructed to feed into his typewriter so he could write continuously, but his process was longer than that. Longer than 120 feet and longer than the three weeks it took him to cover that roll in ink.
His idea was to capture the improvisation of the jazz musician, to create something so raw but right that the first time it comes into being it’s presentable. As Wachowaik criticizes in her dissertation “Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972.”
Though Kerouac projected the belief that both great writing and great jazz improvisations should be “simply realized without the thought process of the creator intervening,” he conveniently glossed over the process of the jazz musician, which involves years of study, rehearsal, and revision to produce effective “improvisation” (Elteren 87). In reality, Kerouac spent years perfecting his “spontaneous” tone, often jotting down personality sketches and stock phrases in his notebook that would find their way into his books (87).
She highlights how Kerouac, like the skilled jazz improvisation artist, practiced and conceptualized his art long before ingesting eye ball vibrating amounts of coffee and speed in April 1951. In this way, it can be said he drafted for seven years while rambling the country the same way a musician can said to be practicing even when they’re just tip-tapping. A healthy regimen of regular writing and reading keeps the mind sharp so that when the time comes to write, it can be done with clear efficiency.
There is also an ethic to this approach, the school of minimal editing, in that the less drafts a piece takes, just like perfect plating the first time, the more warmth there is left in the final product. My personal goal, someday, is to write a novel in the first try (in a 5×5 quad composition notebook, black ink, hand written) however I imagine it’ll go something like this: