My First Draft is a Mountain Road

Katherine Longshore 21 Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Like Donna, I spent last week in the mountains—in a little cabin with no Internet and no cell reception.  Just me and my family and the hard, frosty mornings and the liquid gold light of autumn afternoons.  We wintered the garden and ate turkey and hiked to the river and played Monopoly. 
My Thanksgiving view

Twice, we made the hour-long drive down to the nearest “big” town (population approximately 16,000) to stock up, go to the beach, and visit family.  And twice, we made the drive back in the dark.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I think it deserves mentioning again.  E.L. Doctorow’s quote. “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I love this quote, because I often feel like I’m in a fog when I’m writing a first draft.  But after my experiences last week, I’ve begun to see first drafting as more like driving at night on a mountain road.  Specifically, this mountain road.

I’ve driven this road at least a hundred times—in daylight and darkness, at midnight and with the setting sun shining directly into my eyes.  I’ve been a passenger a couple hundred more.  I know this road.

On the way down to town one day, and upon seeing the third or fourth bouquet of faded plastic flowers on the cliff-side barrier, my husband—who didn’t grow up on this drive—said, “A lot of people die on this road.”  The road is steep and the way is winding.  The coastal folk make the drive inland in summer to escape the chilly fog, and drive back after a day of drinking beer in hundred degree heat on the river.  The mountain folk make the trip for groceries and stop on the way home in the casinos and bars.  The use of marijuana in this county is commonplace, and you can sometimes smell it wafting from the open windows of cars as they pass.  It is tragic—but unsurprising—that people die on this road.

When I drive it at night, I take it easy.  I know this road, but in the dark, it’s different.  Because all I can see is what the headlights light up in front of me.  On the mountain curves, that’s not much.  Sometimes, the beams of light disappear into nothingness—the steep drop down to the river swallows them whole—until I follow that double yellow line and illuminate the rock face, the fern bank, the stand of trees that mark the spot where a little waterfall will bloom when the snow melts in March.
At least it wasn't snowing, like it was last Christmas...
In the dark, you don’t know what will be around the next turn, what will show up in your headlights next.  Perhaps the glowing eyes of a startled deer, or the tumble of rocks from a frost-driven slide.  After decades of use, the road itself is slumping in places, marked by signs that read, “Active Sink Area, Reduce Speed.”  (the signs aren’t kidding—there are places where if you’re driving over fifty, the car will catch air over these “active sinks”, delighting the children and startling the sleeping dog).

Driving back to the cabin in the dark, I’m forcefully reminded of the constant, unrelenting ascent.  Up and up and up and up until Lord Ellis Summit is crested and the road dives down to circumnavigate the valley by hugging its contours.

In the dark, I am surprised by the well-remembered markers that tell me how far I’ve gone and how far I have yet to go.  The Vista Point where the wind howls down to the foggy coast.  The tiny pull-off where my car once overheated, but by some miracle I managed to get cell reception.  The stoplight system where the road has slumped away leaving a single lane.  The ribboning band of curves that let me know I’m only a mile from my destination.  And even then, in the dark, I worry that I will miss the turning.

First drafts are like that, no matter how many times you’ve driven them.  There is a long, uphill climb, when the going can be steady and even fun, but is still hard work and takes longer than expected.  There’s the drop down into the circuitous mysteries of the muddly middle, when you know there’s a steep cliff on one side and a sheer rock face on the other and you’d better keep your eyes on the dimly-lit and sometimes-faded double-yellow line.  All along the way, there are sinkholes and rockslides, approaching semi trucks that look set to run you down, headlights in your rearview mirror that blind you to everything else, and the occasional wild animal blinking at you from the side of the road, ready to run.  And just like this mountain road, my first drafts almost always have a stretch of one-way traffic, directed by a signal, and I never know how long I’ll have to wait for green.  And there are places where you can see tragedy—where darlings will be killed eventually.  Fortunately, there are the instinctive markers that let you know where you are and how far you have to go.  And—when you’re lucky—there’s that beautiful, stretch of ribbon you can follow to the end. 

Perhaps the first first draft--the first book you ever write--is a little more frightening.  You don’t even know if the destination is there.  Even now, on my fifth first draft, I worry that something will sidetrack or booby-trap me.  But as the obstacles loom into the sweep of my headlights, I can sometimes recognize them, and visualize them as they are in daylight, and they stop scaring me quite so much.  I am vigilant, I am careful, I move more slowly than I would in bright light.  I feel my way through the dark, and there is beauty in it.  Even comfort.  Because I know that the destination is there—waiting for me.  And because I know that when I’m ready to start revising, the sun will be up, and I will be able to see all of the road at once and that some of it will be beautiful enough to keep me coming back.


Katherine, this post is so lovely and so encouraging, for those of us who write or encounter any type of difficulty in life. I, too, love the quote about the headlights. It reminds me of something my dad said when I was going through a period of intense grief and feeling very lost. "Just breathe and put one foot in front of the other." I know I will read your words over and over. A real gem. Thanks.

Yes! All of this! And especially that last line. There's so much encouragement here, that even though you're writing about your own experience, I feel like I've been enveloped in a warm bloggy hug.

Yes, Robin! "Just breathe." Excellent advice for writing, driving, and facing difficulties.

I'm so glad you feel the hug, Beth!

"I feel my way through the dark, and there is beauty in it. Even comfort. Because I know the destination is there, waiting for me." Oh, how I love this! Thank you, Katherine.

This is elegant and powerful - and I will share far and wide. Thank you for this lovely post, Katherine!

"In the dark, I am surprised by the well-remembered markers that tell me how far I’ve gone and how far I have yet to go."

Yes. This. How beautiful to think of this process as a winding road through the darkness. Thank you for posting, Katherine!

It can sometimes be amazing how we can find parallels in life and our writing. It is so true that even as I get to the Blank Page to start yet another first draft (because there will be other drafts lol!!) it is still a bit startling. Though I've faced it before, beginning brand new...well, there's just something about it :-)

Lovely, lovely metaphor Katy. <3 this and <3 you!

I'm glad you liked it, Emma! And thank you for sharing.

You're welcome. Thank you so much for reading.

You're right, Angela! It's both exciting and terrifying, isn't it?

I'm so glad you stopped by, Mona. <3 you.

Thanks, Katherine - I enjoyed it too. It rang so many bells for me. And I also loved reading your description of that mountain drive. I'm Australian - and have been travelling through your sort of landscape on a very recent holiday in northern California. It brought back memories of my foot pressed to the floor on an imaginary brake. Bit like how I write my first draft sometimes actually! :)

It's possible you drove on my very road, Sheryl! And the imaginary brake is one of the reasons I do the driving myself--I like to have control. Which is probably one of the reasons why my first draft can be so hard for me. Sometimes, you just have to let go.

Thanks for reading!

I want to get that E.L. Doctorow quote tattooed on my arm! Or maybe sticky-note it to my computer. I need to read that EVERY DAY – thank you for this inspiration as I muddle through my rewrite, wondering if I should just drive off the road ;)

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