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The First Draft

It’s hard not to spend today brooding on that old clich?? that journalism is the first draft of history. Like many people, I’ve been reading this rough draft too closely in recent days, trying to discern the outlines of the final story that will be written by the voters over the next twelve hours and then splashed across the world’s newspapers by morning. Will the story get a surprise ending? Will the hunger for justice (if only poetic) be satisfied?

When you sense history in the making, it’s easy to start dreading the other narratives that might just as easily get written. For the last several weeks, no news has been good news. Any number of nightmares rose too readily from the imagination as I switched on my computer each morning: the Madrid bombings, an October surprise, the tragedies of 1968. The McCain campaign tried everything it could think of to make news, and a glance at Fox or Drudge revealed a descent into faith-based politics, as activists who once fancied themselves journalists were convinced again and again that they’d found just the right accusation to distract voters from the economy or spotted some faint sign of movement in the polls. It was like watching men handling snakes and speaking in tongues as they waited for a miracle, unable to believe that it might never come. But one could also sense among the GOP the frustration of the author when the story goes badly wrong. Men who’d come to believe that they could write history in real time seemed astonished to learn that the old stories could have new endings.

It’s too soon to say if they were right, of course. But I’m not holding my breath, because my own experience has suggested that the stories we write never end as we expect. Writing is itself an act of faith, but with a strong dose of existential dread thrown in: you start out with a clear vision of where you want to go, but also the knowledge that everything will change as you stumble along the winding path that lies before you. Planning a novel is something any good reader can do: that’s why everyone who loves to read novels thinks they can write one. It’s easy to confuse the pleasures of reading with the work of writing. An outline is usually just a collection of conventional moves, plot and character points appropriated from novels we admire. Written that way, every novel would be a piece of genre fiction. But a novel is as unruly as a child, and you have to give them their freedom if you want them to grow up into something truly original.

The same can be said for nations. Whether we’ve grown up, and how free we are, will probably be apparent in the next twelve hours. For the moment, it’s a suspense plot, but the genre will change as the day goes on. Depending on your point of view, it could easily turn toward either history or horror. Every writer knows that you can profit from writing a conventional book, which simply means rewriting what has been written before because that’s what readers have been taught to expect. But secretly all writers hope for a revelation, the power to create something new and original. That’s what I wish for us all today, but if our imaginations fail us, and we slip back into old stories we know by heart, then keep in mind that no story gets written in the first draft. It’s painful, but at some point we have to set our hopes aside and see with clear eyes what we’ve made. And at that point, the real work begins.

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