By Nancy McCabe
A couple of bars of “Hey Soul Sister,” and we were off, the debut of the Allegheny Mountain Cloggers on stage at the Pitt-Bradford Cultural Festival. Two basic steps, a triple, a cowboy.
And then, all of a sudden, a high-pitched feedback shriek blasted through the speakers. The sound guy hastened to silence it. Somehow, in the process, our song switched from stereo to mono. The lyrics and part of the tune were lost altogether, and then underneath it another song started playing, the belly-dancing music for the next group.
Pushing off and chain rocking to the right, we glanced at each other. Heading into the left chain rock turn, our leader kept looking over at the sound guy. But then our backs were to the audience, and in the midst of the cacophony and confusion, some of us stopped altogether, expecting that the sound guy would turn off the music and fix it and let us start over.
But the belly-dancing music and mono track went on vying with each other. Someone to my left pushed off and chained-rocked toward me and to avoid getting mowed over I chain rocked away, at which point I finally just turned back around into the side steps and shrugged and clogover-vined to the left.
“What happened?” people kept asking later, because apparently the audience couldn’t hear the mishmash of tuneless sounds that we had. We gritted our teeth into smiles and thanked people for their generosity in complimenting us anyway.
So what’s the point of this story? Besides the fact that I’m a wee bit defensive and want it to be on record that all (okay, most) lapses in our performance were due to a technical issue? Besides the fact that it’s a good thing that I’m actually a writer, not a dancer, even if I’m an advocate for engaging in a variety of art forms? Besides the fact that you don’t have to be perfect at everything you try, that intersections between creative processes can still offer insight and renewal each time you return to the form that you love the most?
The point is that I love writing more than any other form because there’s a key difference between writing and performing: do-overs.
If you’re a gymnast, as my daughter was for many years, you generally have less than a minute to prove yourself, and if you miss your high bar kip despite the fact that you’ve done it perfectly a million times in practice, if you fail to control a landing on the floor or if you do your perfect back walkover right off the beam, you can feel like your entire routine is a failure. Or if you’re on stage in the eighth grade operetta, and you say the wrong line—the line that actually is the cue for the curtain to go down—you could be responsible for cutting short the entire second act, as did one of my childhood friends.
But writing? There are opportunities for endless do-overs. I’ve been known to rewrite a piece after publishing it and then publish it again as part of a book or in a different form altogether.
Sometimes students tell me that they’re not good writers because what they write never lives up to their original vision. In fact, that’s true for pretty much every writer at every level. Nothing is ever quite what we envisioned, especially not the first time around.
But the act of getting something down on paper is an important first step—what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft,” what my friend and our former writing center director Dani Weber refers to as the “skeleton draft,” what a friend of writer Cathy Day’s calls ‘the down draft—you just get it down.” Then you can lop off the first six pages of that shitty first draft and find the real center of your story and work from there, put the flesh on your skeleton, write the “up draft—you fix it up.”
For me, this is where things get really fun. Now, only now, do you have the clay from which you can sculpt something beautiful. Cathy Day’s friend calls the third draft the “dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed,” but for me, that’s way down the road, the editing process, the twentieth draft.
“Twenty drafts?” a student once said to me. “Isn’t that a little obsessive?”
Well, duh. Although I prefer to call it “passionate,” making good art requires some obsession, and I am here to argue that sometimes allowing yourself to obsess is not only the route to a great piece, but to the satisfaction and fulfillment that is the secret real reason why we do what we do. That transforming our work, and in the process discovering that what we had to say is far more interesting than where we started, ultimately changes us, deepens our thinking, makes us see our lives in new ways. And the great thing about writing is that you can do it over and over and over again until you get it right.
And then if you still aren’t entirely happy with the result, you can do it over again. Stop, restart the music. Insert the missing step. Patch together that rocking chair-triple kick with your most fluid step slide double, triple slur twist.