February 13, 2018 § 16 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.