A draught

“No, you have to stop now, you’ve run out of space.”

This is a remark I make to myself each day I write an Idlepost, after filling both sides of a foolscap sheet, in the manner of the essayist, “Alain.” But unlike the author of Propos, I cheat. I fill the margins with insertions, especially missing connectives, and when I transcribe my little pieces into a computer, I revise and correct — sometimes even after they are posted. Let me blame the technology, for making this possible.

Yesterday’s Idlepost, for instance, was a foutoir, … une vaste blague, … or as we say in English, a dog’s breakfast. I came within a keystroke of deleting it several times, and was still trying to fix it the next day (i.e. this morning).

An honest man, like Émile-Auguste Chartier (whose Propos d’un Normand was appearing daily in La Dépêche de Rouen, a century ago), would not allow himself to revise one word, once he had written it down. These were “improvisations” after all. Imagine a piano player who repeatedly stops, to back up a few bars and try again. The manager of the bordello in which he is playing will soon replace him.

My hero Doctor Johnson, writing a Rambler essay while a courier waited, was asked by a house guest if he could read the paper before it was taken away. Johnson told him no. “I will not grant you a luxury I have not enjoyed myself.”

Deadlines are deadlines, but beyond them, it would be helpful if paper were a lot more expensive.

Such are my revisions while retyping into the (outrageously free) electronic aether that I cannot even be sure I haven’t shot over the space limit. I look at a sentence which seemed to mean something in script, but by the time I have sorted what I think that was, it has spread to a paragraph. I see it “in print” then realize that two paragraphs were needed; then spot discordant rhythms that have crept in. And that is before I find embarrassing mistakes in spelling and grammar.

But if God had meant me to get anything right on the first try, He would have endowed me with presence of mind. That He didn’t, I have numerous anecdotes to confirm.

Somerset Maugham, whom I could never read for more than one chapter, was memorably generous with writerly advice to the young hacks. As an old one, I still remember, “Spontaneity is what you add in the seventh draught.” At least, I think he said this (I am allergic to looking things up). And, “Only a mediocre writer is always at his best.” Bless the man, for giving me these comforts. But it would have been better to live without them.

In a recent Idlepost I regretted my constant failure to follow my own advice. If one is not on television, or Twitter, he has the opportunity to think first. I should make use of it.

But it could be worse, gentle reader. Were it not for the two-page rule, I might drone on forever. And if I weren’t revising, all the posts would be like this.