The Illusion of the First Draft

August 24, 2021 § 18 Comments

By Katie Bannon

I begin each class I teach with a warning: writing the first draft of a memoir can be excruciating. Diving headfirst into memories that lie in the darkest recesses of our minds is difficult enough. Add in the vulnerability of producing the imperfect, “shitty first draft” writing that’s inevitable at this stage? The experience borders on masochism.

For many of us, this is our first time voicing stories we’ve been told never, ever to speak about—never mind harbor ambitions of sharing with thousands once our book becomes a New York Times bestseller. We want desperately to reach others, but there’s also part of us that fears muttering a word of these memories to another living soul. This presents a confounding paradox. We might question if we should be writing and publishing this story at all. What’s more, when we actually find the courage to write, the words don’t come easy. Sometimes the blank Word Doc looks as menacing as your father’s face when you tell him you’ve written a memoir, and that yes, he’s in it.

Our fears and doubts—while real, and valid—are often based on false assumptions about the way drafting should be. We imagine that “real” memoirists plod along on their keyboards with all the grace and skill of Simone Biles on the gymnastics mat. Of course, just like for Simone Biles, gracefulness and skill does not equal ease. Nor does progress happen in a linear fashion – sometimes we need a break from drafting (or to walk away from that vaulting horse) to refill our creative tanks.I’d wager that every successful memoirist had days they wanted to burn their manuscript. When the weight of their memories felt too much to bear, or they didn’t feel “good enough” to tell the story simmering inside them.

First drafts are humbling. They expose not only our most vulnerable stories, but our deepest insecurities—Am I talking too much about myself? Who actually cares about what happened to me? Was it really that bad, or am I just playing the victim here? By its nature, memoir doesn’t just put our writing under the microscope, but our very sense of self.

I finished the first draft of my memoir in 2015. Writing it had felt like wading into a dark lake, watching the water rise higher and higher up my torso, with no idea if my fate was to sink or swim. So imagine my relief when I completed the manuscript. The suffering was over! Revision wouldn’t be easy, but at least I wouldn’t have to mine for material or face the whiteness of an empty Word Doc. The emotional turmoil was behind me, right?

Wrong.

Five years later, after a full-scale reimagining of the manuscript, I had what I’ve come to think of as my “second first draft.” I took a cleansing inhale as I held the newly completed manuscript. Now I was really done with drafting. I had paid my dues, spent seven years producing two distinctive first drafts with their accompanying suffering, self-doubt, and sleepless nights. It was time to move on from the agony of drafting and charge ahead toward revision.

You probably know where this is going by now…but I didn’t.

Three months ago, an illuminating workshop led to my next realization: I wasn’t done drafting. I wasn’t even that close.

What I’ve learned is that we don’t always have one “first draft.” The insecurities, fears, and challenges don’t magically dissipate when we reach our 70,000 words. If you’re anything like me, revision can feel more like rewriting, producing another “shitty first draft” that inches closer to the story we want to tell.

I don’t regret writing the previous two—maybe it’s more accurate to call them “versions”—of my memoir. Each one taught me something new about the craft of writing, and about myself. Most importantly, the process made me realize how badly I wanted this. If I was willing to give so much of myself to this project, maybe my story really did need to be in the world. 

Today, I’m in the beginning stages of the “third version” of my memoir. I no longer worry about what draft I’m on, nor do I expect an end to my emotional strife once this version is complete. I’m focusing on what’s right in front of me: Examining each memory with compassion. Activating my verbs. Playing with how my scenes fit together.

Six years after completing that “first first draft,” I’m still in emotional hell. I teach my students the value of “shitty first drafts” and liberating painful memories, trying mightily to keep my voice from shaking. I’d once believed I was on the other side of the vulnerability I associated with early-stage writing. Now, I realize, it never really ends. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

_____________________________

Katie Bannon is a writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in NPR, Salon, Narratively, Cognoscenti, and more. Her memoir manuscript was a finalist for the Permafrost Nonfiction Book Prize. A graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator, she holds a BA from Tufts University and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Emerson College. Katie is a developmental editor and consultant who loves working with memoirists on finding the “story” behind the “situation” of their lives. Find her on Twitter @katiedbannon

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