The Illusion of the First Draft

August 24, 2021 § 21 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?


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

Giving Up on Giving Up

July 20, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Kirsten Voris

Photo by Bill Hatcher

Five rejections in two months. I should be congratulating myself. It’s simple math—submitting more = more rejection.

I still find the stream of “nos” dispiriting. And draining. I was at the bottom of the drain, and calling a summer submissions break, when I attended How to Publish Your Writing in Literary Journals. The editors of Radar Poetry, Rachel Moles and Dara Shrager, appeared as part of a free monthly Zoom series on writing and publishing, offered through Authors Publish Magazine. (Which, by the way, is a great resource for fee-free submission calls.)

I was looking for surefire acceptance tips. What I heard was more math. The “pandemic effect” meant submissions to Radar Poetry’s 2020 summer contest were up by 50 percent from 2019. Increase in competition = higher bar = more rejection. I felt a touch less dejected.

Then Rachel and Dara shared the news that there are different kinds of rejection. That rejection is nuanced. Sometimes, they said, rejection is an invitation to try again, with a different piece of writing.

I’d imagined rejection emails were boilerplate assigned at random each time the editor pressed their big, red “no” button. Some are short, some have two paragraphs. Some describe the sheer volume of spectacular essays cascading through the submissions window. Some wish me luck, elsewhere. All of them amount to the same thing. Or so I thought.

Not so. Rejection, it turns out, is tiered. The difference between a standard rejection and a tiered rejection is encouragement.

A tiered rejection may not refer to the name of your piece. But if the editors have read your work with interest, enjoyed your writing, and/or encouraged you to submit again, this is good news.

Google “tiered rejection” and you’ll find increasingly granular breakdowns. Here, I offer a simple, three-tiered cake:

Top-tier rejections come with suggestions for improvement, praise of particular elements, encouragement to resubmit.

The middle tier includes the invitation to resubmit, perhaps praise for your story, and regret that it’s not the right thing for right now.

Standard rejections are a brief statement of polite regret, scrubbed free of reassurance or praise. And, like the foundational, bottom tier of the wedding cake, most of us get a slice of this.

Rejection is part of writing for publication. Sadly, my usual reaction doesn’t reflect this understanding.

I internalize rejection as an erasure—of my person, my sensibility, my ability to string words together. I cop an ungracious attitude. Get resentful and act like a baby– in front of my cat. This has nothing to do with journals or editors and everything to do with the climate of my upbringing. Thankfully, amassing rejections has made it easier for me to see this pattern. Which means I can change it—at my leisure.

Here is where I admit that I haven’t actually read my rejections. I skim. Absorb the sting and try to forget. Which cuts me off quite neatly from actionable information. What would happen if I went through my Submittable queue? Dug out the most demoralizing rejections and read them? What, I wondered, is actually in there?

The contest rejection that felt so cold? “Judges change every year, we hope you’ll consider submitting again…”

The third rejection of a piece I love? “You’re a good writer and this is a difficult task…”

Armored in a new mindset, I began to see the difference between “Unfortunately this is not a fit” and “We read your submission with great interest.” I begin warming to my oft-declined pieces, because maybe they weren’t so terrible. Maybe it is the math.

Even better, I found myself interacting with my rejections. Responding, instead of reacting. And one potential response to a tiered rejection is to resubmit.

When you resubmit, choose a new piece; then help the editors remember how much they liked you. Duplicate the language of the tiered rejection, and reference the previously submitted work in your cover letter.

For example if the rejection said, “We read your work with interest and hope you’ll consider sending us another piece,” you could write “Last year you read Y with interest and said you hoped I’d consider sending another piece.”

Some standard rejections always invite resubmission. If you’re not sure where your rejection falls, head over to Rejection Wiki, where you can search for sample rejections by journal, to determine whether yours is standard or special.

Radar Poetry’s Dara and Rachel wanted us to know that the editor who sends a tiered rejection is overwhelmed with submissions. They have day jobs, their own writing projects, small children. Despite this, they took time that they didn’t necessarily have to send you a personal message of hope. Because they think you have promise.

The fact of tiered rejection blew open my all-or-nothing thinking.  Knowing the nuances is compelling me to read my email. To give up on giving up. Rejection, like everything else, is complicated. In fact, it may actually be a little cheer for you and your beautiful writing.

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

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