I’ve found that the gestation period for a new writing idea varies. Not only does it vary by length, but it also varies between writers. I’ve met writers who have been working on one project for close to ten years. I’ve met writers who can pound out the draft of a 600-page novel in a summer.
Recently, I published a story, which I had been working on since undergrad. It took me over three years to revise an eight-page story. But the first draft only took me a couple hours. I remember working on it while lying in bed at Koinonia house and blasting Carmina Burana through my headphones. There was no gestation period for this story, no wrestling with an idea before actually setting out to write it. In those couple of hours, the idea just came to me. The wrestling came later.
Right now, I’ve got a new idea percolating. If it ever takes flight, it’ll be a book-length project, and for me, novel ideas take a while to simmer. Before drafting my first book-length project, the idea sat with me for over a year. It sat in my gut, a beast waiting to rise. It morphed and changed a million times before it ever got to breathe in the scent of ink on paper or bask in the glow of the freshly written word. For a year, I played with the idea in my head, set it against different backgrounds and introduced it to different characters. In this way, I was able to rule out many wrong plot turns and get rid of superfluous characters. Still, an idea is nothing more than a gnawing ache in my side or an annoying headache before I let it go out into the world and make it reality.
That’s the hardest part. When an idea is still inside me and dormant, I can control it completely. Not only that, but it has the freedom to metamorphose over and over, without needing to take any definitive shape. Once I let the beast go, once I set the idea into meager words, it seems much tamer and so much more trivial than the grand idea in my head.
Nothing is ever as perfect as I imagine it to be. My writing always falls short of what I had hoped. That’s where the wrestling comes in. I might think I’m “wrestling” with an idea before I start writing it. I might imagine I’m shaping the beast to my will as I write a first draft. But the real shaping, the real forming of a story, short or book-length, takes place in the revision. And that is not a bad thing. Far from it.
It’s taken me some time to accept my creative process as it is. It’s normal to let ideas percolate; it’s normal to write a subpar first draft. The idea cannot possibly become what I want it to be on the first try. Still, I need to have a vision of what I want it to be, which is why I like to let ideas sit and grow before I start to push them out into the real world of the written word. The beast has to be born, but it will look pretty monstrous at first. Eventually, I’ll wrestle it into a shape that, while maybe not as beautiful as the idea in my mind, is closer to what I want. It will never be as perfect as I imagined it. But maybe it can get close.
Bethany Tap (’12) received her MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she also worked as the managing editor of Chautauqua: the literary journal of the Chautauqua Institution. She is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her wife, Clarissa, and son, Alexander.