February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments
Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.
An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”
The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:
Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
But it’s still hard to believe.
As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.
Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.
As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.
Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.
February 22, 2017 § 12 Comments
By Alice Lowe
You hate writing from prompts, because you’re no good at it, because despite the human brain’s instantaneous capacity to absorb new input and coordinate an appropriate response, you cannot put pencil to paper with any degree of intelligence or coherence. Within seconds of hearing a prompt—prompts like “write about saying goodbye” or “riding the all-night train” or “a pool of blue water”—all potentially interesting and challenging topics—you’re at a loss, stammering internally, increasingly anxious as a fleeting memory or opening line evades you, as any possible direction remains out of reach.
You look around the table—prompt-writing usually takes place in a small group around a table—you look around as the prompt is being read, and at the dropped voice, the sound of the concluding period (or ellipsis) ending the prompt, it’s as if a starting shot has been fired, heads down, pens and pencils moving in notebooks with seeming constancy, confidence and speed. “Keep your pen on the paper,” you’re told, keep writing, don’t stop to deliberate or, god forbid, to edit, to scratch out a word and replace it with another; be spontaneous, let your hand be the channel for the words flowing unobstructed from your mind like water over the falls.
It doesn’t work that way for you, how well you know this, but you came here to write, to get past this impasse or phobia or whatever you want to call it, and so you grasp the prompt with both hands and hold it vise-like to keep it steady as you wrestle it to the table and firmly secure it with your left elbow, while with your right hand you grasp at the effluvia that looses itself from your mind until you have something in your fist, something soft and flabby but something nevertheless, and then, after more hesitation, after staring at the dark water stains like Rorschach blots on the ceiling, you start to write, and then lo and behold, you get on a roll of sorts, you write in fits and starts, but you write until “Time” says the timekeeper, and you stop abruptly, mid-sentence, mid-word, it’s like taking the GRE, pencils down or you’ll be disqualified.
Participants are encouraged though not required to read what they’ve fashioned, and the rules are reiterated—no comments or critique, as these spontaneous efforts rightfully fall into the category of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts,” accepted and forgiven no matter how abysmal, received with half smiles of concealed scorn or pity or envy—and you listen and think, jeez how’d she do that off the cuff, or what crap and here I thought I was bad, and then it’s your turn and you know you could pass but you think come on now, this is part of the discipline, what you came for, and you read, knowing as you do that it’s a heap of excrement, you’ve written business letters with crisper verbs and better development, but you read, your handwriting getting increasingly indecipherable as you go, so you skip a word here, a phrase there, until you finish and look up and smile wanly without making eye contact with anyone as the next person takes up the baton, and then it’s all over, and you pack up your stuff and say your goodbyes, and you go down the stairs and out the door and head for home, an hour-long walk, and wouldn’t you know it, about a third of the way there you’re struck with the big “aha”—this is what I could have, should have written to that prompt, and you beat yourself up a bit for not thinking of it earlier, but you’re excited, and you start composing in your mind, and you walk faster and faster to get home and get to your computer to spew out these finely crafted sentences, the spot-on metaphors, the brilliant stream of prose.
And when, after several drafts, after considerable editing and revision and all of the pains that go into a completed essay, you read through it a few times, and you smile and nod and say to yourself, “yes, this is it,” you submit it to several journals, and it’s accepted by one of them and published, and you look at it in print and recall that if it hadn’t been for that prompt, this sterling piece of work might never have seen the light of day—and yet you still hate writing from prompts.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including 1966, The Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and has been nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
November 16, 2016 § 7 Comments
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.
September 2, 2016 § 79 Comments
By Ellen Shriner
Whenever I tell people I’m a writer, they always ask, “Are you published?” For years, being published was my primary writing goal. So when I first saw Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird, my reaction was, “Yeah, right”—
I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
At that point, I was in my 40’s and had decided to split my time between my career—writing marketing communications—and my passion—writing essays and memoir. I was determined to get serious and break through. Lamott’s words sounded inspirational, but I wanted to be published. Anything less and I was a wannabe.
A decade later, I rediscovered her comments and wished I believed them. Then my infrequent publications would feel OK. I was in my 50’s and had been steadily working at the craft of writing: taking classes, participating in a writers’ group, submitting pieces, and revising my memoir. BIG publication (i.e., a book) was elusive but still seemed possible. Despite my skepticism, something about her perspective compelled me, so I filed it away.
Like most writers, I crave the cosmic acknowledgement being published brings. Publication means an editor or publisher considers my writing worthy. But at 62, I have to admit cosmic acknowledgement has been sporadic: a dozen of my pieces have been published in anthologies and literary magazines. And yet, I’m still writing.
I have begun to see the wisdom in what Lamott says. After devoting ten years to writing and revising my book-length memoir and several more years to seeking publication, I’ve accepted that it’s unlikely to be published. Although I was sad to let go of that dream, it was also a relief. The single-minded pursuit of that book meant I didn’t have much time for new topics or styles of writing.
Today, I write essays and I blog. Initially, WordSisters was meant to build my platform so I’d be more attractive to publishers. After a few months, I discovered I liked the discipline of blogging. It’s a shared blog, so I have to come up with something every other week. And I do. When it’s my turn, I complete a short piece and put it out there. Now and then, a blog falls short, but many of them are pretty good.
Some weeks I feel like I’m whispering into the void. Half a dozen people like the blog on Facebook and even fewer comment on it. That’s disappointing, but I try not to dwell on it. Many people deal with an onslaught of written words every day. It’s inevitable mine will get lost now and then.
After I focused on writing essays and blogs, I sensed the magic of Lamott’s advice. At first, tiny glimmers of peacefulness replaced my anxious striving. Just sitting down to write is a win. Of course, I get discouraged and feel loser-ish sometimes. But more often, I feel flashes of contentment and simple joy in the work. I’m holding up my part of the writing bargain, regardless of what editors do with it.
These days, I’m writing whether or not anybody publishes it. Because I want to. When drafting, I love being caught up in the rush of ideas and words. When revising, I enjoy the challenge of coaxing meaning and clarity from my jumble of thoughts.
Anne Lamott was right: writing is its own reward.
Ellen Shriner is one of the founders and contributors to WordSisters, a shared blog (wordsisters.wordpress.com). Her short memoirs have been published in several anthologies (The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, Mourning Sickness, and It’s About Time). Her personal essays have appeared in Wisconsin Review, Mothers Always Write, BrainChild, Midwest Home, Philosophical Mother, Minnesota Parent, and Messages from the Heart. She has written a book-length memoir about coming of age in the workplace during the late 1970s. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, and she has two grown sons.
August 5, 2014 § 25 Comments
Of course I do.
After I work out for fifteen minutes, drink two bottles of water, wash the dishes, drop the curtains at the tailors, do a few hours for my freelance job, research places to submit, listen to a podcast, eat lunch and make love to my boyfriend, not in that order.
I’m not sure where the book time is going to fit. And my sense of “responsibility” wants me to be responsible to everything else I can possibly commit to, before allowing me to commit to my own creative life.
Anne Lamott’s essay for Sunset proposes a terrifyingly simple solution. What can writers give up? What matters less than writing? Where can we carve out an hour for a page?
This is what I say: First of all, no one needs to watch the news every night, unless one is married to the anchor. Otherwise, you are mostly going to learn more than you need to know about where the local fires are, and how rainy it has been: so rainy! That is half an hour, a few days a week, I tell my students. You could commit to writing one page a night, which, over a year, is most of a book.
Maybe the curtains can stay hemmed with binder clips. If I leave the washing up, my boyfriend will (gladly) do it. Especially if I skip the podcast and keep the making love.
October 30, 2013 § 31 Comments
I think it has something to do with the fact that the carpenter has blueprints. The chef has recipes. And no one will complain if they build or cook the same thing twice. The writer has no such luxuries. The writer is cursed to start over, from scratch, every time. Like Sisyphus. Except the writer has to make the boulder, and each time it has to be a unique but precisely sculpted blend of levity and gravity, transcendence and relatability. In short, a miracle. By 11:59 tonight, please.
Honestly, I think the real trouble lies in that a writer doesn’t know how she does what she does. It’s not wise to admit that these days, when everyone is supposed to know everything, especially about the way they make their living. But it’s true. A writer can make herself sit at the desk and string words together, but she can’t make them be the right ones. She can try to think profound thoughts and have unparalleled insights, but trying will probably make the good stuff flee, like the soot sprites in Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro.
Writing is not so much a process of creating as it is waiting–waiting for the good stuff to show up. We writers fill up a lot of pages in the waiting, what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” Sometimes there are second drafts that are just as shitty. Or third drafts that are even worse. But the practiced writer keeps cranking out the pages until, here and there in all the crap, they see enough decent ideas or turns of phrase to make them believe they have the kernel of a story, or an essay, or a book. Then they trim out as many of the awful passages as they can bear (sometimes the awful passages can be very close to one’s heart), whittling things down to a tenth of their previous size, and the process begins again. Write, write, write, until more good stuff appears and we can throw more of the crap away.
There is no recipe. No blueprint. No line of stepping stones that will lead one to the creation of a brilliant piece of literature without moments of wandering in the dark. We writers strive to bring into being something bold, original, and heart-stoppingly magnificent. But, as clichéd as it may sound, that stuff only arrives by way of inspiration. Don’t get me wrong. We writers have to work hard. We have to show up. We have to put pen to paper or fingertip to key. We have to cry and sweat and bleed. But there’s no direct link between our suffering and the end result. Our tears, our sweat, our blood get poured out, and then, magically, from somewhere off in left field, the miracle appears. And the end result seems so disconnected from our effort that we wonder why it couldn’t have just shown up earlier, before we had that little visit to hell.
But of course, the work was necessary. The work did get us the result. It just happened somewhere in the depths of the unconscious. We couldn’t see the gears turning, the neurons firing, the gods descending and re-ascending from our little brains. And so, when it’s time to face the next blank page, we still have no clue how we do what we do.
And we’re not at all sure that it will ever happen again.
Sharon Rawlette’s work has previously appeared in Salon and the academic journal Philosophical Studies.
March 29, 2013 § 4 Comments
Meg Rains, author of “The Memory of My Disappearance“ in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and the need to sometimes drop the story line:
It was my first date with J., and I talked for over three hours. About my mother. I was desperate and excited to explain myself. Or maybe I was just nervous. In any case, he finally swooped in for a kiss just to shut me up. You don’t have to tell me everything tonight, he said.
I’ve always been clumsy telling the tale: She was my best friend; had a psychotic break; disappeared for more than a decade; left me heartsick and grief-struck. For years I was tangled in nothing but story. Then she reappeared—this very familiar stranger—with only six months to live. I brought her to me; bore witness; knew that those moments in the nursing home made me the luckiest girl in the world.
J. may well have been The Little Dutch Boy; dam(n) this narrative, please.
Plenty of writers focus on getting the first draft down, and then going back in to comb and craft. But that makes me anxious. As if confronting reams of familial footage in some darkened theatre with a burned-out exit sign. (Whoa, that was melodramatic—which would likely be the outcome if I tried to work that way.)
For a long time, I didn’t know how to work with the material at all. So I didn’t. I read. I stared out every available window. Took lots of walks. And naps. I collected sentence fragments and word lists; made collages with paper and paint and glue. I decided to be gentle on myself; consider it all processing.
Finally, two things got my momentum going. The first was an art exhibit where everything was 5” x 5”—paintings, sculptures, framed flash fictions. It all seemed so manageable, you know, emotionally. It was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in action.
The second was something my friend Joshua Poteat once said about his writing process: “Collect notes on most anything… amass a large amount of random items… try to cram a bunch of it into a piece by removing its context and make it work all together.”
Those sentence fragments started to come in handy. So I’d pick out a few at a time and, rather than building the narrative, I’d attempt to frame up a feeling, which I soon realized was akin to trapping the ephemeral.
In Start Where You Are, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön suggests that we “… begin to drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like.” She’s referring to ways of living, of course. Though, I love this idea in the context of writing.
What use is a storyteller who drops the story line? I use this question as a kōan to consider each time I sit down to work. These days, I’m finding comfort in the process, which generally looks like this: slouch back / lean forward / slide out / rearrange. Whether this refers to my writing or my posture depends upon the day.
Meg Rains grew up in Little Rock, Ark.; dropped out of music school; graduated from Emerson College; worked in advertising, the arts, psychiatry, philanthropy, et al.; took an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts; and nowadays lives in Richmond, Va., where she nine-to-fives in an office park.