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The One Percent

March 3, 2011

To paraphrase Thomas Edison’s famous words on the nature of genius: ‘Writing is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.’ The one percent is the idea, the flash of imagery or meaning that flickers into life almost from nowhere and demands to be noted down and stored for later consideration. These inspirations might come from a song title or lyric, a photograph or other image, from the sudden juxtaposition of two seemingly random ideas that make perfect sense in that moment.

A writer’s notebook is full of such moments; little one percents with the potential to become something more, something capable of transporting the reader into a fictional world without reservation or distraction. Many of these inspirations will languish in notebook pages, for days, weeks, months, even years before demanding enough attention to be let out to play. Some never make it out; those ideas we have which simply fail to pass muster. Part of the process of inspiration is the subconscious filtering out the ideas that won’t work. The writer may not know why, but the ideas we choose to work on are those that will not go away. They are the ideas that demand to become a first draft.

Yet, the first draft is not the ninety-nine percent. The first draft is an extension of the one percent where the writer will go with the flow of the subconscious, led by the light of the original idea. Adam Marek, author of Instruction Manual for Swallowing and recent recipient of the prestigious 2011 Arts Foundation fellowship, describes this process in his contribution to Short Circuit – A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, the essay ‘What my gland wants – originality in the short story,’ as ‘the unconscious part of us steering the wheel, it sometimes has a destination that we don’t get to know about until we get there.’ The first draft, the taking of the original idea and creating something physical from it, is only the beginning of the writing process, the first draft is simply a longer description of the original inspiration. This is still the writer trying to work out exactly what the story means.

I had first hand experience of this over the last week or two. A throwaway comment on a TV program got me thinking about family trees and the shock of finding something unexpected hidden in the branches of not-too-distant family. The idea sat in my notebook for a week or so before demanding to be told. The first draft was a scramble of writing that took place in two sessions, during which my main character described herself to me, along with her cad of a husband, his new girlfriend and the nature of the surprise hiding in her family tree. Only upon reaching the end of the story could I see exactly what kind of story I was telling. Only then was the theme revealed. Only then, in the violent slapstick of the ending did I truly see Adele and how she felt about herself at the beginning and how she had changed by the end. All of this was the one percent. This was my subconscious working the original inspiration, mining it for the story hidden inside.

In his essay, Marek discusses this transformation of initial idea into first draft and what it then reveals to the writer: ‘A particular confluence of ideas will feel right, but I won’t be able to see what it’s really about until I’ve finished the first draft and read it back. And then when I rewrite, I’ll hone it to make that meaning resonate.’ This honing is the 99 percent, the perspiration that Edison spoke of. The real trick of writing is in building on those tiny one percents, on the revelation of the first draft with the hard graft of the other ninety-nine. The real writing, as all writers will attest, is all in the redraft.

I have tucked my ‘family tree’ story away in my redraft folder, for when I am ready to undertake the ninety-nine percent perspiration. It is not unusual for me to redraft stories six, seven, even ten times. My story ‘The John School,’ due to be published in the forthcoming second issue of Brum based magazine Dirty Bristow, was originally drafted in 2005 and has seen something like fifteen redrafts of varying degrees of complexity. In some ways the joy of writing is that original inspiration and the mad dash of energy that generates a first draft. That is the process of inspiration. What follows is the hard graft or perspiration, which is different kind of pleasure altogether, the pleasure of a difficult job well finished.

And it is only when the story is complete and ready for reading does the process comes full circle. The ninety-nine percent perspiration then allows the reader to climb into the story, to truly relax into it, carried along by sentences that have been worked long and hard to generate just the right amount of meaning. Only then will the reader be drawn into the story enough to truly appreciate and understand the one percent, the inspiration, the flash of idea or imagery that drove the writer to craft a story in the first place. The ninety-nine percent perspiration is the delivery system through which the author delivers the one percent inspiration directly into the head of the reader. When done right, the reader should feel that thrill of inspiration, that moment at the end of a  story when the reader sits back and mulls over what they have been shown, over what has been revealed. And it is that transmission of ideas, thoughts, feelings across great distances and stretches of time that the writer is aiming for, that makes the hard graft, the perspiration worthwhile.

  1. March 3, 2011 3:09 am

    Oh this resonated so much! That one percent is where the thrill is, the rush of discovery. A similar thing happened this week when I was writing my latest Short Story Club story, and I had the shape of the story in my head, but when I turned up to write, the characters simply weren’t who I was expecting them to be. I’m old and ugly enough to know that when that happens, I just need to shut up and watch and listen and write it down.

    That’s where the magical feeling of seeing a story unfold for the first time happens. Bliss.

  2. March 3, 2011 12:34 pm

    What a great post. Lots of writers think inspiration isn’t a flash from nowhere, but rather the result of laying groundwork. Edgar Allan Poe pointed out that the moment of blinding revelation is largely a fantasy. He said that most writers “prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought.” The novelist, Steve Martini, said, “I have found by long hours of experience that the gems of my storytelling often come not from some instant of inspiration so much as from the constant revision and rethinking of scenes, dialogues and characterizations.” So many writers think inspiration is seldom a plank that hits a writer over the head. It is the product of working on the problem.

  3. March 4, 2011 5:49 pm

    I am starting to find that in my first draft my characters are “telling me” their backstory, and from there I must craft the actual story. I have had the occasional flash of inspiration from seeming nowhere, and those stories are a fevered rush of drafting and redrafting as I seek to hone before the fire leaves me.

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