That's Altar in the photo over there. Every hard copy version of it. 8.5 inches of paper. Plus 1.5 GB on my computer. I think it’s quite impressive. And it’s growing. I’ve embarked on the next leg of the journey, ripping open the seams of the novel, rewriting, reworking, re-envisioning how the novel and its component scenes are put together.
I recently read an essay by a poet who doesn't keep drafts at all. She burned everything except the finished piece years ago in one great bonfire and felt so freed by it that she refuses to keep drafts anymore. She mentions that most writers have a belief they’re going to go back to all those "tidbits" and mine them for the few gems they hadn't used, but never do.
To a certain extent, she's right. You won't ever go back to those drafts because there's too much to go through, most of it is dreck, and you don't have the time.
But...I see value in keeping those drafts.
I took the picture of Altar’s drafts to show my students how much writers write to get to the final book they read (and to illustrate that I don't expect them to write perfectly, wonderfully manicured prose in 5 minutes time). I'll show it to the college students, too, when I do my presentation on revision in a couple of weeks because I think it's an incredible picture, and it reminds me of what I've been doing for the past 12 years.
It's like looking at archeological strata - there are the yellow, handwritten pages on the bottom, then becoming typed pages, and finally ending up with the binders that contain the completed drafts 1 and 2. Without keeping all those pages, I would never have been able to go back to my original freewrite and recognize how far the work has come since the moments of its birth (it really was like looking at Matt's baby pictures, to see that freewrite).
This past week, as I started on the writing phase of revision, I decided I would keep EVERYTHING as I worked through my 3rd revision. I've printed out the opening pages of Altar about 3 times now with successive changes, stapling together each group of pages so I can go back to earlier versions, and added a handwritten yellow page as I've stopped to work out a particular paragraph. I think it's kind of cool, though possibly psychotic, but it helps me see the work I've done in a tangible way.
Which, I suspect, is the real reason writers keep their drafts so obsessively. There may be a smug zen-ness to ditching your drafts, but I suspect the rest of us hold onto what we've written because it helps us see, in real, tangible terms, what we've been doing. When you’re writing for yourself (as opposed to having someone waiting for your work), I think it’s important to see what you’ve done in a real way.
And thank goodness most writers do save their drafts, because it has yielded wonderful studies and allowed other writers to see what, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald started with when he was writing Gatsby, which was pretty damn lousy writing. Or to see how many times Virginia Woolf reworked the opening of Mrs. Dalloway (many, many, many times) before she hit on opening with Mrs. Dalloway deciding she would get the flowers for the party herself.
Plus, in the back of my mind, I think, if I do become a famous writer, aren't my drafts going to become valuable? Isn't some college going to swoon over the gift my sons will make of my letters and notes? So I'm really doing posterity a favor by keeping all my drafts, rather than creating a fire hazard in my house.