There is nothing more intimidating to the struggling writer than beginning that first rough draft. Our first instinct (well, my first instict) is to write perfect prose right from the start. We’re often too uncomfortable with the “rough” part of the rough draft, so that first draft often takes a long time to start. Every word is the wrong word, every phrase too awkward, too cliche, too . . . wrong wrong wrong. So the page stays white. The poem stays in our minds, the story just a memory we have failed to share. Damn you rough draft. Recently, however, I came across the Chinese word for rough draft, and it has helped me visualize a more welcoming, more possitive, even more enjoyable first draft experience.
It’s pronounced cáogǎo. The first character means grass, and the second character means tall standing grain, such as rice.
But there’s much more to it than that. The first character literally means grass in the morning, or early grass. I remember the character by thinking of morning dew on a dandilion.
Like the first character, the second character is also made up of two parts. The first means standing grain, and the second means tall. Both parts are Chinese characters and have their own meanings apart from the composite character 稿.
So what does this all amount to? Well, for starters, the Chinese word for rough draft actually means “tall standing grain in the morning.” Just take a moment and think about the emotional connotations of such an image. Imagine strolling one golden morning into a ripe wheat field and just standing there among the tall stalks of grain, some bending this way in the breeze, some bending that way, the yellow-white spears of grain on top tipping slightly downward, the sound of field mice digging through the soil and detritus, the sky pink and orange and yellow, the deep blue in the West slowly beginning to pale.
草稿. I wonder if the Chinese make this connection themselves? Probably not. The language is so familiar to them there’s a good chance they miss the metaphor. At any rate, I will never begin a rough draft the same way again. When I start a new poem, I will envision myself walking into that field of grain. It will be morning. Maybe a little snow loitering on the leaves, maybe dew, a few sparrows somewhere making their sharp calls that draw my bodies attention. The rough draft, not so rough anymore, not so terrifying. Now so full of beauty and quietude and possibility. I think I’ll have to change the way I refer to that first attempt at a poem. ”I’m off to stand in the morning grass” … too long … “write the morning grass” … better, but still …. I’m open to suggestions.