In Praise of Outtakes

Outtakes from a film are one of my secret pleasures. In the rare moment, I actually go to see a movie in a theater these days, I am often one of the last people to leave. There are always a few of us, raging against the dying of the projector’s light, hoping that the end is not the end-end.

I linger in the dark not to avoid responsibility or reality but because I hope for the patient person’s reward–behind-the-scenes footage, flubbed lines, rib-tickling malapropisms, an extra scene or two that did not make the movie but was created nonetheless.

As a result, I often wish for an outtake equivalent for writers, too. Bonus material with notable influences, experiences, stanzas, or scenes that did not make the final cut. A behind-the-scenes look at what was left on the cutting-room floor for those curious souls who are still hanging on, still waiting for the credits to revert back to a hidden gem. To discover a shibboleth, a forgotten skeleton key that might pry open the narrative a bit more.

Perhaps the allure of outtakes is the backstage pass into the creative process. To witness how the sausage is made and still feel exhilarated to see a piece of art emerge from complications and mess, half-steps and -starts, and arrive in revised, full-bloom creation.

Archives often offer an intimate glimpse into the writing process. Kate Chopin’s edits on the published version of Vogue for her acclaimed short story, “The Story of An Hour” (1894) as the incorrect title, “The Dream of An Hour” reveals her true intentions. Or reading the ever precocious and revolutionary Phillis Wheatley’s first poem in 1765 in her own handwriting at age 11.

To see a writer’s work as she sees it is both a gift and a revelation. Many writers do not seek to influence how others respond to their writing, which is an honorable approach, to be sure: let the art speak for itself. Yet, in this day and age, where we typically write less, type more, and do not always keep multiple drafts or even think about where the electronic versions will live after the machine dies or when the cloud falters, being able to gain an insider’s view into the writing process, especially as what we archive changes and evolves, is priceless.

draft: the journal of process probably comes closest to this idea of writerly outtakes by publishing in-line comparisons between various drafts, first drafts and final works, exclusive interviews with authors, and more. While the latest edition was published three years ago, the journal, founded in 2010 by Rachel Yoder and Mark Polanzak, is one of those rare publications that shows writers and readers an insider’s look into the writing process and how writers approach craft, from Roxane Gay to Matt Hart.

What is exceptional about draft is its unflinching and unsentimental contributions about what it takes to get to a ‘finished’ piece. From posts on the journal’s accompanying blog marginalia about the five times it took before Nicole Dieker wrote her novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989-2000, to revision prompts and writing exercises to rekindle imagination, an essay, a story, and, maybe just maybe, a more long-lasting creative fire.

Literary outtakes such as draft assure the rest of us that we did not, of course, wake up like this. That for every polished and poised story or essay is a horde of procrastinators, perfectionists, life events, and small-time catastrophes and blessings that distract us from creating art now. This reminder, that making art is rarely, if ever, a linear path, is exceedingly human and kind.

It is this glimpse into unfinished business that prompts me to wait in the theater, long after the final scene is done. Why I will always flip to the contributors’ section of any journal, straining to catch a glimpse of the person whose words I have just inhaled. To see if their biography might serve as an unlikely benediction: a clue, a wink, a soft there-there to just keep going.