Dig for the Treasures in Your Writing

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In the days before banks and safety deposit boxes, people who wanted to hide or protect their treasures often buried them. Some of these treasures were never recovered, however, because their owners either died or were forced to leave their land before they had a chance to retrieve their buried items. As a result, modern archaeologists sometimes find these treasures when they dig near ancient cities or civilizations. As a writer, believe it or not, you, too, can dig up treasures in your writing if you’re willing to burrow beneath the surface of your first draft.

Generally speaking, a first draft includes all the details that come immediately to mind when you begin writing on a certain subject. For instance, when I was in high school and college, I can remember being asked to write about topics such as “A Memorable Day” or “The Most Difficult Day of My Life” or “A Turning Point.” In each case, I found myself writing about a particular day in sixth grade, the day my little sister Peggy died.

Yes, I probably could have used that same basic essay over and over, but, instead, I found myself exploring more and more the specifics of the day: my feelings at school when I first heard the bad news; the ride home from school with Mom, Dad, and my four sisters; my time alone, crying in my bedroom; our first family dinner without Peggy; and the wake and funeral that followed.

After I finished college, I still found myself thinking about Peggy and her premature death at age four (due to extensive medical problems). At one point, I wrote a long poem about her, and, even later, I turned the whole experience into a short novel. As I look back at the entire writing process, I realize that I was working like an archaeologist. First, I had to dig through the rough drafts and final versions of all the short essays to find the poem, and, then, I had to go below the surface of the poem to get to the novella. The writing helped me deal with my sister’s death, and the novella keeps the memory of her alive.

American author John Steinbeck followed a somewhat similar process to create one of his most famous works. In an amazing display of creativity and discipline, Steinbeck wrote the first draft of his 500-page novel “Grapes of Wrath” during the summer and autumn of 1938. This Depression era story describes the Joad family’s migration from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to California to work as fruit pickers, and the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. However, this is not a work that Steinbeck found in the topsoil of his writing. Rather, he, too, had to dig through other writings on the subject to get to his masterpiece.

According to Robert DeMott — who served as editor for Steinbeck’s book entitled “Working Days: The Journals of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’” — Steinbeck went through three preliminary steps before he wrote his famous novel. First, in 1936, Steinbeck wrote a series of newspaper articles called “The Harvest Gypsies” to highlight the difficulties faced by the Oklahoma farmers who sought a better life in California.

Then, in 1937, Steinbeck began writing a novel called “The Oklahomans” about how these migrant workers would change California once they settled down. However, Steinbeck never finished writing “The Oklahomans.”

Instead, he began another long work, a satire called “L’Affaire Lettuceberg” about the battles that took place between the growers and the workers in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, California. Though Steinbeck actually finished this particular work, he wasn’t happy with it, and he destroyed it. In fact, as Steinbeck was writing “L’Affaire Lettuceberg,” he described the work in this way: “it has a lot of poison in it that I have to get out of my system, and this is a good way to do it” (DeMott xxxix). Thus, the entire process was therapeutic for Steinbeck, and once he had moved through these three writing projects, he was finally ready to write “The Grapes of Wrath.”

As a student writer or a professional writer facing numerous projects and tight deadlines, you may feel like you don’t have the time or the energy to dig beneath the surface of your thoughts. Consequently, you may be tempted to take a short cut now and then. You may be tempted to hand in a rough draft instead of digging deeper for a more polished essay. You may be tempted to massage a previous work instead of creating something fresh and original. As much as possible, though, try to resist those temptations. Instead, like Steinbeck, try to keep working, keep digging, and keep plowing through the layers of your life, your research, and your creativity to find the treasures that are buried there.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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