The Illusion of the First Draft

August 24, 2021 § 20 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.

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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

Let It Flow: Writing Without Editing

November 7, 2017 § 18 Comments

Last week in my workshop on self-editing at Mid-American Review’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, writer Terry Korth Fischer asked a great question:

How do you stop editing as you write?

I was a little confused by this question, because that’s normally not my problem. (My problem is Ass In Chair.) But everyone else in the room nodded–How to avoid editing ourselves in early drafts? How to keep the writing flow going without second-guessing every word?

Online, there’s some common solutions to compulsive self-editing:

Turn off your monitor. I think I’d freak out and have to keep turning it on to hit “save” every minute. For fabulous touch-typists maybe?

Start each day with a fresh page–at the end of a writing session, copy the last sentence into a new document along with some instructions to yourself about what’s next. Next session, start from there.

Write with a timer. Don’t stop or go back until the timer rings. Suzanne Roberts does a variation on this: for dedicated writing time, she sets a timer for an hour. If she checks social media, gets lost in research or leaves the chair, she restarts the timer. Maybe restarting the timer on each edit could break the habit?

Write by hand. It’s harder to delete pen on paper.

…I don’t do any of those things. What keeps me from self-editing too early?

Replacement Habits.

Whether we’re quitting smoking or unhealthy eating or nail-biting (guilty!), it’s hard to replace a habit with nothing. First ask, what problem is the existing habit fixing?

Our brain nags to edit because we’re afraid. Anne Lamott says,

I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions […] and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.

We’re afraid if we don’t stop and fix it RIGHT NOW, it’s going to be terrible forever. How can we reassure our tiny, frightened lizard brain, “It’s OK, I’m going to come back to it, I promise”?

What works for me:

  1. Edit first. For ongoing projects, I spend the first 15-20 minutes reviewing yesterday’s work. Tweaking words and sentences helps me get back into the flow of the story. I rarely do a massive rewrite–if something’s pretty bad, I’ll start the scene again from a different angle, or accept the challenge to write a new scene addressing the problems in yesterday’s work.
  2. Work on deadline. Most of my Brevity blogs get written about two hours before going live. My newsletter stories go out bimonthly. I feel worse about being late than being imperfect.
  3. Placeholders. More research needed? Type LOOK UP COURT MANNERS. Not emotionally ready to dive into a memoir moment? NEED SCENE WITH MOM IN KITCHEN HERE. Sometimes I highlight the placeholder, or put XXX on either side so it’s easy to find in the next draft.
  4. Look ahead. The work I did yesterday can be bad–terrible, even. Because I’m not promising every word a place in the next draft. I already know I’ll be cutting whole chapters and rearranging paragraphs. That lowers the “fix it now!” urge.
  5. Plan to practice. Musicians painstakingly learn plenty of music they’ll never record. Artists fill pages with drawings they’ll never work on again (in fact, they have pads full of newsprint to sketch without wasting expensive paper). Dancers who don’t perform classical work still show up at the ballet barre to maintain their technique. Why should writers be exempt from skill development? Why not write pages and pages of a novel or memoir that are simply “practice” and not an early draft of something great? Why not intentionally write some essays that never get edited, that stop at a first or second draft? Every other artist spends time on foundations that don’t directly build a final piece, why should we get to skip skill development?

Whatever tips and tricks we use to stop editing as we go, it boils down to this: Let go of the dream of being perfect. Inside all our hearts is a tiny hope:

I’m going to make something beautiful, on the first try, without working very hard for it. My emotional experience and love of story will compensate for any lack of skill or coherence. I’m entitled to have my thoughts come out exactly right on the page, the first time, and as long as I’m still messing with it, it’s still the first time.

It doesn’t work that way.

We know it doesn’t.

Let it go.

Let it flow.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her email essays come out twice a month, imperfect but on time–sign up here.

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