Written by Brendan O’Meara
If you have an hour, listen to this conversation on writing between Neil Strauss and Tim Ferriss. Ferriss, while not a master wordsmith (by his own admission) has, at his core, true immersion journalism in his system. He experiments, meets interesting people, and writes about it. If he wasn’t as consumed with life hacking, startups, and tech, he’d make a great narrative journalist. While at Princeton, he took a course with John McPhee. How great would that be!
But it’s what Strauss said about his early drafts that prompted this little riff. At 21:15, he talks about the first draft being for you, being for the writer. It’s the vomit draft, it’s all you want to say. The drafts following are for shaping and crafting. What you wrote in that first draft may not make it into successive drafts. Strauss says, “The first draft is for you; the second draft is for the readers.” I’d rephrase this because it gives a false dichotomy that there are only two drafts. There are many. “The early drafts are for you; the later drafts are for the readers.” You reach that line of demarcation once you being making wholesale cuts, then you know you’ve entered late-draft writing.
For the past five years (!) I’ve been writing, toiling, drafting, cutting, writing more, cutting more, from my baseball memoir The Last Championship. I’m definitely in the late-draft phase. I haven’t touched it in months, which is probably a good thing, but I do have to revisit it at some point. My father isn’t going to be alive forever!
My earliest drafts, and that includes the latest, are pretty harsh at some points toward my father. The more and more I realize it, some of that stuff doesn’t need to be in there anymore, but I needed to write it in the early drafts. I needed to get it out of my head and onto the page. Once there, I could judge its literary merit. I could judge if the reader needs to read the stuff. I could decide if the memoir is too confessional, instead of just laying out a nice story about a father, a son, and their bonds, broken then reformed, by baseball.
The wonderful folks at Summer Game Books, who have taken an interest in the book, wrote me a nice critique. They enjoyed what they read, but figured the book was at its strongest when it adhered to the baseball narrative. Any time it branched off that road it faltered.
My father, at times, behaved in unsettling ways towards me, my sister, my mother, but some/most of that stuff doesn’t need to be in the final product. As I get older, I now realize that we do our best. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback things. I know he did his best. It could’ve been better, but it could’ve been a whole lot worse. I’m not complaining. The early drafts are too damning to him, too hurtful to read, and, in the end, irrelevant to the overall story.
But the early drafts needed to have it. And that’s my point. I needed to get it out of my head, out of my journal, and onto a public page to better judge. The first draft was for me, now it’s onto the later drafts for Dad, and for the reader.