As I was researching an article on House Rock Wildlife Area for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine, someone asked me how I planned to write about the bison.
House Rock’s bison are a touchy subject, because although the wildlife area was originally designated for the conservation of a herd bought by the state of Arizona in 1928, the herd currently doesn’t set hoof inside the wildlife area. Instead, it passes the year up on the nearby Kaibab Plateau, primarily in Grand Canyon National Park. This is a conundrum because the bison are supposed to live in the wildlife area, not the park.
So, how was I going to handle it?
When I start a writing process thinking about what can’t be said, I freeze up. “I can write this but not that” sends an invitation to my internal critic/editor to get to work. If you can produce a first draft while your fingers are frozen on the keyboard, tell me how: I certainly can’t do it.
Plenty of topics related to wildlife are sensitive, and require nuanced handling to be communicated well. I have run into my share of them in the past eight years. But when I’m writing a first draft, no matter the topic, I have to feel safe to write anything. Some of it will be drivel, off-topic, cliché, repetitive—all the cargo my first drafts normally carry. Some of it will stray into “forbidden” territory, but that’s not for me to worry about right then, that’s for the internal critic to consider, later.
My first draft is always long. It’s when I create the second draft that I think more about what the reader needs and wants from this story. Maybe the reader needs to know something about the sensitive topic. I won’t just throw it out with the junk. I will re-work it until I feel comfortable with how it’s being conveyed. And, I’ll show the story to people who know more about the topic, to get their feedback.
That’s what happened with the House Rock article. The first draft (3,200 words) and the publication draft (1,800 words) are essentially the same story. The publication draft doesn’t gloss over or ignore the bison, but doesn’t dwell on them, either, because the story is about my experiences watching wildlife at House Rock, not about the wandering bison. If you want to see how I did, the story is slated for the September–October issue.
I think the internal critic can be trusted to do her job well—when it’s time for her to work. Until then, give her a cookie and a cup of tea and send her off to read someone else’s writing, while you do your own.