Before the ‘zero draft’ comes the ‘sub-zero draft’ — even a napkin will do

In my teaching and writing I find myself, more often than ever, using a concept called “zero drafting.” I did not invent that term, but I am about to take credit for a riff on that strategy called “sub-zero drafting.”

(If you do a Google Search on “zero draft,” you will find many interesting and useful links from authors and writing teachers. Joan Bolker writes that she learned the term from another author, Lois Bouchard, but no one stakes a claim to it, the way that Calvin Trillin does to the “vomit out” draft or Anne Lamott does with “shitty first drafts”).

I get Trillin and Lamott in their writerly self-loathing, but the names of their strategies seem too harsh for my practice. Good lord, the act of writing is hard enough without the projectile connotations. In contrast, the zero draft seems downright neutral, almost friendly. Drawn from teaching strategies of composition theorists such as Peter Elbow, author of “Writing with Power,” the idea is to write quickly and early without the inhibitions that petrify into paralyzing procrastination or writers block.

The zero draft, then, is the writing – maybe the scribbling – that happens before the first draft. I, for example, now have written about 25 zero drafts for chapters of a new book. I plan to write a few more before I turn back to read them cold to see which ones deserve to be turned into first drafts. With each draft, my standards will get higher until each word will have to prove its worth. (A commencement address I wrote and delivered in 2017 went through 11 drafts.)

But please welcome to the writing party the sub-zero draft. The idea came in part from Geoff Dyer, writing about post-modern scholar Roland Barthes:

Barthes liked “to write beginnings” and multiplied this pleasure by writing books of fragments, of repeated beginnings; he also like prebeginnings: “introductions, sketches,” ideas for projected books he planned one day to write.

Think of a sub-zero draft as a prebeginning. It’s not a story, but story dust. It occurs at the first moment that random thoughts, ideas, images turn into language. For me, the blank canvas most likely to catch them before they evaporate is the simple napkin.

At the Banyan coffee shop in St. Petersburg, the napkin is the place where I am most likely to scribble a creative list, a comparison/contrast diagram, and the names of books I want to read or give away. In this context, the content is not important. What matters is the quick creation of a set of possible elements for the essay, a couple of key questions to be answered, with some evidence to be checked, weighed, and organized.

The napkin — and other spaces for quick writing — has a good history, but not as good as I once thought. I had it in my head that J.K. Rowling outlined the Harry Potter series — either on a train or in a coffee shop — on a napkin. This is from an article in the British newspaper The Telegraph: “On a delayed train from Manchester to London in 1990, Rowling wrote her initial Potter ideas on a napkin. She typed her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on a typewriter, often choosing to write in Edinburgh cafés, accompanied by baby daughter Jessica, now 19, named after Jessica Mitford, a heroine of Rowling's youth.”

Rowling has denied the napkin story in more than one interview, noting that, although she didn’t have much money, she could afford notebooks and pens. (I have found one report that says Rowling scribbled some Potter business on an airsickness bag!)

Raine Mercer on the Blueline Blog has a nice list of creative works that began on scrappy paper:

  • That Richard Berry scribbled the lyrics for “Louie, Louie” on a piece of toilet paper.   
  • That Stephen King wrote the idea for the book “Misery” midflight on a cocktail napkin.
  • That Paul Lauterbur, while munching a burger at a diner, sketched out a blueprint for the Magnetic Resonance Imaging, better known as the MRI, on a napkin. Thanks, Paul!

Music, fiction, science: The lowly napkin has a history of aiding journalists in their investigative pursuits as well. A review of the famous journalism movie “All the President’s Men” favors a scene in which Dustin Hoffman, playing Carl Bernstein, interviews a reluctant accountant: “He takes his time, asking questions slowly, scribbling on matchbooks, napkins, tissue paper. The lengthy scene, one of the film’s best, feels like slowly guiding a deer in the headlights off the road.”

On a Barnes & Noble site, Ginni Chen offers a list of surprising spaces for early scribbles. In addition to the sacred napkin, she lists index cards, cardboard (a favorite of Gay Talese), scrap papers, scrolls, book margins, butcher paper, walls, and the back of a receipt or grocery list.

To all these, I must add the palm of the human hand. Maybe I’m partial to those movies where the attractive woman meets a man and writes her number on his palm. If it happened to me, of course, it would last only until my visit to the men’s room where the anti-bacterial lotion would eradicate that moment forever.

I favor a book titled “Songs in the Rough: Rock’s Greatest Songs in Rough-Draft Form,” assembled by the singer and songwriter Stephen Bishop. The examples are wonderful, with great lessons for all writers on the craft of revision. Most are written on notebook paper. But not all. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees was born on a boarding pass. Alice Cooper gives us the beginnings of “Only Women Bleed” on the dust-jacket of 45 rpm record. The Carpenters scratched “We’ve Only Just Begun” on the back of an envelope. Doc Pomus started “Save the Last Dance for Me,” on his own wedding invitation. No sign of a song on a napkin — but it could happen!

Let’s end with journalism. When the great Don Murray was coaching writers at the Boston Globe, he watched reporters with great care. One had the assignment of writing about the tall ships coming into Boston Harbor. Murray heard the reporter ask his editor, “How much time do I have?” The editor said, “About 30 minutes.” The reporter said, “Great. I’ve got time for dinner.”

Murray stalked the cocky writer to the cafeteria and watched as the scribe, inhaling a bagel and a cup of coffee, scribbled a few notes on a napkin. It turned out to be a brief plan, four or five items that back at his desk propelled the writer to meet his deadline just in the nick of time.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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