René Girard And Why We Need To Edit Our Work
We accept – often grudgingly – that our work might need to be edited. But perhaps editing is more than technically polishing the things we create; maybe it’s the crucial psychological move that enables our work to go from good to great.
René Girard, who passed away in 2015, was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. He explored the way in which imitation, the desire to be similar to those around us, to have what they have, to look the way they look, drove much of the creation of culture and civilisation. The desire to imitate is so powerful it can create intense rivalries, and even fuel conflicts big and small.
Girard And The Nature Of The First Draft
In a 2008 interview with the Stanford News magazine (the university where he spent the final years of his career), Girard talked about an epiphany he had while writing his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel.
He was writing in the way of a young scholar, cynical, destructive, using his intellectual tools to make a mark on the academy, when he noticed something about what he was doing in the early drafts of the book.
“The author’s first draft is a self-justification.” It may either focus on a wicked hero, the writer’s scapegoat, who will be unmasked by the end of the novel; or it may have a good hero, the author’s alter ego, who will be vindicated at novel’s end.
If the writer is a good one, he will see “the trashiness of it all” by the time he finishes his first draft — that it’s a “put-up job.” The experience, said Girard, shatters the vanity and pride of the writer. “And this existential downfall is the event that makes a great work of art possible,” Girard said.
This has to be one of the most challenging descriptions of the writing process I’ve ever read. What would it mean to admit our first drafts are simply the product of “vanity and pride”, and how might that change the way we approach the editing process?
Editing As A Process
I’ve always tended to see the writing process as a three-stage thing – creation, logic, refinement. The first draft is the act of getting words and ideas down, in whatever form they come to you. The second draft organises those words into some kind of logical order, be it an argument or a story or an explanation; something your reader can follow. The final draft polishes things off, maybe with better examples, more vidid metaphors, sharper word choices, and of course, clear grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
Although the fine details are different, I’ve also tended to see photography and music as having similar editing processes. We arrive somewhere and point our camera at the most obvious things. We take the touristy snapshots before our better impulses take over and we make more compelling photos. Or we scratch out a demo version of a song, maybe with simple instrumentation, before we capture progressively better performances that are cut and mixed into a final version.
Girard’s idea challenges this kind of progression.
It’s not hard to see the truth in it. I can easily recall articles I’ve written that improved during the editing process, then worsened again as the final drafts saw me adding ten-dollar words and self-aggrandising stories in an attempt to look more impressive. Or photos that were clearly overcooked in their processing, as if I were showing off how many Photoshop skills I can bake into a single image. Or songs that simply died in the studio, weighed down by too many guitar solos or overly complex audio tricks.
Editing As Existential Downfall
What would it mean if we looked at the process of first, second and third drafts as movement from ego, to downfall, and then on to redemption?
For one thing, it would change what we think of the process of sitting down to create. Instead of seeing first drafts as a scramble to find words and ideas out there, first drafts would give permission to release desires that exist within.
As liberating as that might sound, the second draft becomes more brutal and tragic: the realisation that much of what we’ve created is of no use to anyone, since it’s merely serving our own ego. But this critical eye can help us focus on what is of universal worth among the mess of personal and particular trash.
So the second draft is not just another layer with a few bells and whistles added; it’s really there to lay bare the ugly truth in the first draft, our need to be appreciated and validated, the vanity and pride, the ego.
The third act is really about letting the story, the work, the message breathe. This protects against the temptation many of us face in the final edit to go back and start adding ourselves back in unnecessarily. The work now needs to live in service of the reader, the audience, rather than our own emotional needs.
The Freedom Of Accepting Editing
The paradoxical result of accepting Girard’s position is that it frees you to write egotistical, needy, validation-seeking first drafts. You have permission to ask, “What do I want to say here, what do I have to show the world, what do I need to get off my chest?” You have room to create what you want, in the way you want, to your heart’s content.
It’s an honest and open way to start, and it runs counter to a lot of the advice today about how to write, especially in the content economy. It is the opposite of starting with SEO concerns and targeted audiences, which can suffocate ideas before they’ve even had the chance to be born. This kind of writing lives in a narrow high-walled corridor with no room for self-expression or personality. It’s no wonder so much of the “content” we read has little human connection or story to it.
When you start by creating what the algorithm wants, you may as well be an algorithm yourself.
Instead of starting with such neurotic tightness, Girard’s approach invites us to put our messy selves at the heart of the first draft, in the full knowledge that once we have opened ourselves the drama can begin, as we start to see what the story really is, and then allow it to emerge as we edit the work.
As we slowly let our need for validation subside, we allow the universal meaning and appeal of our work to emerge.
When we resist editing our work, it’s because we want to be admired for our technical prowess. We find it hard to hold back when our need to be admired takes over. We show many photos, because we want to hear praise, rather than showing the one really decisive photo because it matters more than us. Or we pour every literary trick we know into our writing, because we want the adulation of the readers more than we desire to give them the room to get lost in the story.
Girard’s genius is that by focusing on editing not as a challenge based on technical skill, but as a drama involving human psychology, he calls us to be something more than just assemblers of creative works who build from selfish motives. What enables our creative endeavours to go from good to great is the honesty to put ourselves into every version of what we create, then to step back and allow the work to flourish on its own terms, as something bigger and more potent than whatever simple personal reasons might have prompted us to create it in the first place.