Essay by Geoff Le Pard, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.
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When I was asked by Charli to consider what raw literature meant to me, I did what all lawyers do (and sometimes I can’t not give best to that training, however hard I try); I gravitate to a definition, in this case of ‘raw’.
One settles neatly alongside Charli’s opening where she posits ‘raw’ literature is:
…first-works. It’s the original material a writer produces in response to an idea, challenge or aspiration. It’s the novelist’s first draft; the poet’s scribbling of a sonnet; a screenwriter’s initial storyboard. It’s a memoirist’s recognition of a relevant story to share. It’s that ah-ha moment when the imagination outpaces the fingers across a keyboard or a tongue giving diction. It’s the writer’s eye on the blank page like a sculptor’s gaze through a block of marble
My definition states ‘raw’ is:
being in a natural condition; not processed; not having been subjected to adjustment, treatment or analysis.
But it also gave me this:
exposed (as in a wound); explicit, in realistic detail
Let’s just note here there are other definitions and that may lead to other debates, by other writers.
Looking at definition no 1, we begin to see why the birth analogy is made. Often it is said we ‘give birth’ or ‘life’ to our work. I think that’s what Charli means by ‘raw’ literature.
But that started me thinking; if raw literature is birth, what about conception? What’s that? In the writerly process? And why is it so many people rubbish raw literature, that first draft, in ways you wouldn’t rubbish a new born?
I think, probably stating the obvious here, that the spark Charli references is in fact conception. That initial idea, that’s the act of conception. After there’s a gestation period, usually hidden away from public view, the idea growing inside us, changing, taking on some sort of shape that warrants it being put onto the page or typed into a machine. That period may not be long but there is a period, even for the speediest of flash pieces.
We may share our condition with others but they may not recognise it in the early stages as we blather our way round the idea. But eventually we give birth to something, we have created some sort of first draft, something tangible. It is more than the mere act of scribbling an idea down, a treatment, a few headings. It has to have some sort of independent existence, it must be recognisable by others as a work, a whole, even if not yet particularly coherent. It still needs a lot of support, guidance, nurturing; it’s by no means the finished product.
It is, indeed, raw. But in saying that, let us grasp the most important point from this analogy. A first draft, like a new born, isn’t shite, rubbish, not worth the paper, etc., etc. It’s a perfectly formed yet undeveloped thing that needs care, love and attention, guidance and support. Much like a new born.
You don’t diss a baby for being a baby, do you? You don’t expect it to be what it’s not any more than you tell it it’s rubbish until it grows up. That sort of parenting went out with the golf ball typewriter and spats. Sure, the first draft is ugly; so are all babies whatever we say of our own, but so? They’ll grow and, with help – editing if you like – they can become splendid.
Raw literature is that. It’s not the idea, the germ, not even the first note or scribble. But it is the first attempt at a coherent whole and worthy of everyone’s support and understanding. When I start anything, any writing I know it will need work. I may not have much time: a flash prompt may give me 24 hours, a blog post may be programmed to go inside a day or two but it will always benefit from finding some space to spend on it.
That is so, even if that editing changes it so fundamentally that none of the original words are used. It would be an unusual piece, after all, that contains nothing of that original idea. The fact that the words used are different or in a different order doesn’t mean the original had no merit. Individually the words are meaningless concepts – it is only when brought together that they take shape as a work – much like cells. But you cannot reach that final shape without the original unrefined lump of prose.
Imagine an opening: He walked slowly past the shops.
Over time you might change that to: The man strolled along the High Street.
Apart from one ‘the’ all the words have changed but the opening stays conceptually the same.
Writing a book is a journey. We’ve all heard that cliché? As with any journey, the beginning isn’t rubbish; it’s just a part of the process. As Charli suggests, starting on creating a novel is like the commencement of a sculpture. Does that make the first few blows rubbish, redundant? Course not.
But if it’s so important, if that raw lump is in fact a crucial part of the process, how careful should you be in its creation, in that first attempt? Not very, would be my judgement. Of course a pregnant mother takes care of herself to take care of the baby, but mostly the body does the job, come what may. So, with that first draft; let it happen. Do not be frightened by what you’re giving birth to. In the way of new births, your power really to influence only comes after birth. So, get it out there. Kick the inhibitions into touch. Let it all hang and just write.
Which neatly brings us to that second definition: exposing yourself, being open, vulnerable. Is it any wonder we have inhibitions if creating something raw opens us to hurt?
When you start a piece of writing, when you let it flow, you must resist the urge to restraint or you might never reach the birthing point from which the whole process can really flow. If you give in, you’ll slow the process and risk gumming it up before you have something coherent from which to work.
For any work, if we truly want to get that rawness, newness, freshness, we should be prepared for some hurt and not be scared to expose our vulnerabilities. You know it is said you need to be brave if you are going to be true to your ideas. But how brave, how raw, how vulnerable will we really allow ourselves to be? Isn’t there always something that stops up being completely raw? Aren’t there some inhibitions that you simply can’t avoid?
When I wrote my first published work, I set it in 1976, in a rural setting. The characters included a family of displaced Ugandans with Indian ancestry. One of the main characters, the mother finds herself having to give a home to the Ugandans and is unwilling and unpleasant to the visitors. By today’s mores she is clearly racist; at that time her behaviour wouldn’t have received anything like such approbation (that’s not an excuse, just the explanation).
I was advised modern audiences would take against her because of those views, common as I knew them to be back then. I challenged that notion but, being my first book, felt I was losing the battle to moderate the character as more than one beta reader expressed their confusion over how they felt about her. My original writing was raw, uncensored and, in fact honest but so what? I felt then I needed to listen to the critics and accept their advice; if that was the market, I didn’t want to jar with it.
However, had I not written it, initially, as I thought right I wouldn’t have been able to clarify my own thinking and make appropriate calls on what I wanted to achieve with the book, how it might reach its audience. To me that early draft needed to have the language, ideas and concepts of the time, even if some reading them would be angered, annoyed and shocked. That’s a sort of raw writing.
Now, four published books into my writing life, I might approach the criticism differently. But equally I am well aware that I don’t really write raw fiction. Not completely. You see, it is not just the attitudes of characters that’s the issue. It is the language they use, too.
These days I populate my novels, as I see appropriate, with the ‘f’ and ‘c’ words. I don’t care and even if beta readers think my characters potty-mouthed (some do, some even count the number of times I use the ‘f’ word), I know that to be real that’s how they would speak and think and I shrug and think it’s the beta reader who needs to get real.
But would I use the ‘n’ word? The ‘p’ word? Me a white male, a child of a former Empire-controlling nation whose dirty boots are all over the globe? Nope, I can’t imagine I’d have that courage, ever. I might have a white supremacist character, or just a cowardly bigot who pretends to be open minded but isn’t really; even so I’d censor them for my own peace of mind. That is, I think, on one level a shame. I doubt, even for a first draft would I use those words. Sure, it may mean I avoid offending people but really I’m not doing it because it improves my literature but because I don’t want to offend. Or more likely I don’t want to be thought of as offensive. Cowardice, then. So raw literature isn’t always something to be applauded or indeed created.
So given I can change things, as I did with my first book, in the editing process, why don’t I let it out, in all its gory glory with ideas, words, and characters I find offensive? Even at the outset, when the first words hit the page, why not be truly honest, open, raw?
Because I just can’t. Not completely. And I wonder how many of us are capable of that degree of uninhibited writing? Don’t we all have taboos? Aren’t we all a product of the societies we live in, the cultures we adopt and so we never really let go fully? And maybe, because we have to rub along that’s not a bad thing. But, as I say, I think it is actually quite sad.
There are some who might say I lack ‘honesty’. But those are the self-same people who will tell a hurtful truth, rather than dissemble because they can’t help but be ‘honest’. Rubbish. Since when has undiluted honesty, much like undiluted alcohol, benefited anyone?
So what about you? Do you agree with the birthing/conception analogy? Or is that overdone? Do you think first drafts are indeed rubbish or merely staging posts in the life of a written work? And can you write truly raw, un-self-censored fiction, or memoir, or whatever else it is you write? Is anyone that brave, or foolish, or maybe just crass?
Geoff Le Pard started writing to entertain in 2006. He hasn’t left his keyboard since. When he’s not churning out novels he writes some maudlin self-indulgent poetry and blogs at geofflepard.com. He walks the dog for mutual inspiration and most of his best ideas come out of these strolls. He also cooks with passion if not precision.
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.