Learning To Speak

I am told that I took longer than usual to learn how to speak. Or speak intelligibly, anyway. According to family legend, while other kids had begun to say, “Daddy likes raisins,” I was babbling in an incoherent imitation of English. My parents had just begun considering their therapeutic options when, upon opening a car door, I blurted, “Are we coming home after we go to the store?” A dramatic pause, and then: “I can talk!” This seems to have been my model for learning. I was not going to piece things together gradually. Instead, I would go full speed from the start, and eventually my skill would catch up to my ambition. When the skill did come along, it often came along all at once. I remember, in fact, reading T. S. Elliot for the first time when I was seventeen, and actually saying out loud, “Oh, I get it. It’s simple and beautiful.”

Readers are lucky they are spared the first drafts of most novels. They are certainly lucky to be spared the first drafts of mine. It has taken me many years, but I have finally ceased believing this will be the novel that arrives in one shot. No matter how together it feels, that first draft is like the babbling I did as a child—largely unintelligible to anyone but me.

It is a part of the fundamental challenge of writing, and why writers often cannot proofread their own work: we hear what we intended to say instead of what was actually said. Yet the difference between a scene that works and a scene that doesn’t can be as small as a paragraph, even a single sentence. As long as we have patience and hold to the intention of what we mean to say, the unwanted words will fall away and the brighter ones will rise to the fore. The trust we must find is never in something so paltry as our words, but only the unnamed impulse that summoned those words from us.

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