First Drafts are Lousy, and That’s Good

November 16, 2016 § 7 Comments


Julie, with paintings she made while avoiding first drafts

By Julie Cole

Anne Lamott calls it the “the shitty first draft.” Ann Hood prefers the more delicate phrase, “a beautiful mess.” Whatever your chosen label, it’s that first version of your story or essay, the one James Earl Jones is so eloquently narrating in your head (even though what shows up on the page is a babbling toddler.) Why is there such disconnect with our vision and the elusive first draft?

Ann Patchett articulately describes the issue in her essay “The Getaway Car.” She refers to her unwritten work as a butterfly fluttering around in her head:

This book that I have not yet written one word of, a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life…and all I have to do to is put it down on paper and then everyone can see the beauty I see. And so I do…I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it.

As writers, we have all committed this type of homicide, but isn’t it involuntary manslaughter? It wasn’t our intention; we were just trying to transfer the brilliant concept in our head into a stunning story on the page. This disconnect between what we envision and our initial draft can cause paralysis. I know this all too well. My fear of the first draft was partly responsible for my 20-year hiatus from writing. Of course, I can rationalize that the first ten years were justified. It was the mid-90s and I got caught up in the young adult whirlwind of marriage, two children, a new job and an out-of-state move. Despite a lifetime of writing, there just wasn’t time.

But by 2005 life had settled, the kids were older, and I was excited to reconnect with my passion. I began participating in writing workshops and trying to reclaim this dormant part of my identity. My mind exploded with ideas; characters showed up while I was trying to sleep and had the most fascinating conversations. My mind was spinning with ideas; I began to write my novel, capturing all the brilliant dialogue and scenes that had been swirling in my head. It was as if some force had taken over my body, my hand was sweeping across the page at a furious pace. I just let it flow for several months and then one day I sat down as an editor and read my first draft. I was aghast. It resembled nothing of what I had imagined. When I examined the draft again, I felt embarrassed that I had waited ten years only to produce a pile of crap. There was only one logical explanation—my talent had evaporated. Defeated, I put the manuscript away and subconsciously focused on other activities for the next ten years. In hindsight, I’m convinced it was the horror of the shitty first draft that prompted me to find other outlets for my creativity.

So what does one do when they are unwittingly avoiding their writing? Well, I started with basket weaving. A relative who was quite proficient showed me the process and I began buying and soaking reeds and weaving baskets of various sizes and colors. And then there was the foray into acrylic painting classes offered through our local recreation center. I showed up every Thursday night with a blank canvas and a tote bag of rich paints. Blending the colors and creating abstract landscapes calmed me. There was also an excursion into mosaic. I loved breaking pottery shards and putting the pieces back together; it was very symbolic at a time I was going through a traumatic divorce.  Throughout this period, I still journaled, but I was too busy to really write, because I had signed up for a series of improv classes. After a year and a half of intensive instruction, I was good, but not great; sometimes funny and often clever, but improv was not my true passion. I rationalized that improv would help me with my writing, which it did when I would occasionally write.

But in January 2015 the universe sent me a wake-up call. The global staffing company I was working for went through a series of restructurings. I, and two-thirds of my team, were suddenly unemployed. The silver lining was that I had a healthy severance and a lot of time on my hands.

Each day, I would sit by a roaring fire and journal, and I finally accepted the fact that I had talked about writing more than I had written. I found my box of old manuscripts and saw their imperfection, but also their potential. That’s when I decided to get serious about matching my actions with my intentions. I applied, and was accepted, into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The requirements have been intense. Each month, I’m responsible for reading two books, submitting approximately 25 pages of new creative work as well as two critical essays. Through the rigor of this program, I have learned to not only accept, but embrace the shitty first draft (SFD). Now I intentionally scrawl “SFD” on all first drafts, in essence giving me permission to produce a less than perfect version. It also helps when I look back at prior work to not be horrified. But I have really focused on the ‘shit’ part of the shitty first draft. I recognize that this initial piece of prose is my fertilizer. It takes a lot of manure for a rose to blossom. It’s how we can go from shit to exquisite.


Julie Cole lives in Milwaukee and has recently re-entered the writing world after a 20-year hiatus. Before her procrastination period, she worked as a copywriter at The Columbus Dispatch and held several corporate communications positions. She holds a BA in journalism from The Ohio State University and is pursuing her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts.




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