The Life Cycle of a Rough Draft

When I’ve typed the last word of the final chapter, revised, edited, and can’t bear to stare at the screen another moment, I print out the manuscript. Weeks later, with a marked up, scribbled on stack of papers, I type my changes back into the computer.

Then I drop the obsolete draft onto the scratch paper pile. Two-hundred-plus pages, storied on front and blank on the back, each ready for the next stage in its life.

To what destiny?

Some draft pages are chosen by my teenage artist. She started drawing people at age two and hasn’t stopped since. Every scrap of paper, edges of spelling lists, and end pages of books she owns are covered in people, creatures, and scenes. As soon as she’s done eating, she grabs a paper from the scratch pile, a pen or a brush, and draws while carrying on dinner conversation with the rest of us. As we watch lines take life, the conversation pauses. She shrugs at our comments, finishes the drawing and tucks it back into the scratch paper pile. She’s created for the joy, not the keeping.

Sometimes I rescue the drawing to tuck into a portfolio. But often the papers continue onto their next stage. My middle daughter pulls out a sketch, holds it to the window with a blank paper over top and traces, adding her own sweet style. My toddler grabs another sketch and crayons it in, happily reporting on “cats”, “oh pretty” and “dragons.” All horses are dragons to her.

Other draft pages are the canvas for math problems, teased out between mind and pen. Numbers crowd against numbers. Scribbles of frustration or big inked stars showing I’ve finally got it. My oldest son swaps between imaginary and educational journeys of the mind. Castles and maps invade the paper’s borders. The two journeys blur together, as numbers morph into castle stones, mirroring a similar struggle and journey on the opposite side of the page.

On some, my middle-son copies out plants and animals from the Smithsonian Natural History. My preschooler covers the paper, blank side and story side, in thick interconnecting lines of marker—his mazes to stump me.

Brainstorms for family projects take up other papers, my rough blobs represent spoken words for garden plots, my husband’s intricate sketches clarifying my dreams.

Torn strips of draft paper become bookmarks. My novel’s hero tucked into Hop on Pop, Dinotopia, Ella Enchanted, and How Things Work.

Shopping lists, jotted out directions, origami. Pinata paper-mache. Table shields under painted pumpkins. And sometimes, when both sides are fully used and abused, mulch bin fluffer.

Art and more art. Fairies flit on the back of battle scenes. Marker dragons leak through and shadow treks through the desert. In some future, will someone turn over a saved piece of art to see the hero’s love, the villains closing in, and ask—what happened next?

Even new stories take birth on backs of old ones. My middle daughter chews on her pencil, then scribbles in scenes from her imaginary world of Sara and Ben. My oldest son plots world maps, naming each land for its resources. My first born designs races—part animal, part human—notating the size, diet, abilities, and personalities along the margins. Phoenix rising from paper ashes.

Once, when paper and canvas were expensive, the artist painted over old art. In our family, we follow a similar path. Not because of cost, but because of the thought, I can create whatever I want on this page, and if I mess up it doesn’t matter, it’s just scratch paper. And creations abound.

What will take birth on the rough drafts of this story?

My stories become canvas for their art,
And their lives are canvas for my stories.

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