Imagine a long road. Longer. Longer still. It twists, turns, takes you through beautiful open countryside and dark threatening woods. There are places where the road appears to vanish underfoot – you find yourself on sodden marshy ground that sucks at your feet, not sure if you’re still on course or way off track. This road, it undulates, too; rising sharply or – worse – slowly and steadily for miles at a time. It levels out, it drops, it rises again and the crest is obscured by dark clouds and hanging branches.
This is your first draft.
That and the bricks.
To me, at least, writing a first draft can feel like dragging a sack of bricks along a dirt road.
At first all you have is the road and an empty sack. You set off, find a solid, well formed brick and pop it into the sack. Because that’s your job – collecting bricks. You move on, bag flung over your shoulder, not too heavy or cumbersome at this point. Maybe the brick bounces against your hip now and then, but it’s little bother. Look, another brick, pop it in the bag. And there’s a third. And a fourth – there are a fair few of them around here. Many are fine looking bricks and you gather them eagerly, but others are cracked, broken, or the wrong colour. Most of these wonky bricks, you leave on the side of the road, but some you drop into the sack – who knows, you may need them for something down the line. When you start building. I mean, what else are you going to do with all these bricks?
I should mention, this is a magic sack – it has an almost infinite capacity for bricks. And it’s getting pretty damn heavy now. You have bruises from carrying it all these miles – not that you can any more; it’s way too heavy by now. So you drag it. Sometimes you drag it for what feels like miles before finding any more bricks. And when you find them, they are small and few. Other days, however, you find mountains of great material. It all fits inside the sack.
At night you put the bag down on the side of the road and go to sleep. It’s always there the next morning – waiting for you. Some days you don’t show up, but the bricks remain – no one else is going to carry them for you. Occasionally – illness, family, apathy, despondency – you leave the bricks for weeks at a time. Weeds have grown up around the bag, it’s sodden with rainwater and heavier than before. With days of inertia, the bag has sunk slightly into the soft earth. Getting that sack of bricks moving again is a bastard. You may even wonder if it’s worth the effort. But you heave, you wrap the sack around your fists, dig in your feet and you just heave. Slow progress today, your back aches and the way ahead is still obscured – but progress is progress. It should be easier to start tomorrow, and you vow never again to leave your sack of bricks abandoned for so long. But you probably will; you’re only human.
Other days, you will wake fizzing with energy and resolve, you’ll push and drag and walk well into the dark. You’ll lug those bricks until your head swims and your legs lose their strength. Be wary of this too, though. Because tomorrow you’ll wake exhausted, spent and sore. You won’t have the reserves to grab that sack and pull it forwards, and again it will sink into the earth, bedding in and defying you to move it. You will, of course, and you will resolve to pace yourself better in the future. For a while you will keep this resolution, until you forget and have to learn the lesson all over again.
Sometimes, when the road dips, gravity and momentum help – if you work with them you can fairly jog along, almost struggling to keep ahead of this hurtling mass. These days are the best; the thrill is hard to articulate. And then the road – how long is it, exactly? Impossible to tell – it rises again. You drop your head and hips and lean against the weight, the skin on your hands singing with pain as you struggle to keep your grip on the rough-hewn sack. (Magic sacks are always made of hessian.)
The road is little more than mud here and the bag of bricks ploughs a furrow in the earth behind you. But … yes, hold your hand to your eyes, squint … the road is reaching its end. Days or weeks away still, but yes, your destination reveals itself and you know you will arrive there soon. You keep adding bricks, you keep pulling. The routine of this is like a friend now, and your muscles have grown strong from months of hauling this heavy sack. You quicken your pace. When you have the breath to spare, you whistle. You can and you will do this.
When you arrive you find a clean plot of land, and at its centre a smooth and even concrete foundation. The shape looks familiar and feels right, you drag your sack of bricks to the edge of the foundation, take hold of the base and upend the bag.
The bricks flow forward, spreading, connecting, stacking and arranging themselves into a structure. The bag – magic, remember – has organised the materials you collected, has fitted them to the scheme you held in your mind as you searched and gathered and walked and hauled.
Maybe you made a castle, or a house, a tower or a bunker – whatever you envisaged, here it is. Far from perfect, but standing and solid. Some of the walls are uneven, you’re going to need an extension out back, and a couple of rooms may need knocking through. The roof, too, leaks. But this is a good start.
Looking back at the long road behind you, twisting, dipping and rising into the horizon, it’s hard to believe you made it this far. And looking up at the assemble bricks, it’s difficult to conceive of how you made such a thing.
Tonight you will eat well and open a beer. Maybe two. You will sleep soundly and so should. So you must, because tomorrow you need to get out your tools and knock this thing into shape.
That’s the second draft and another imperfect metaphor altogether.