Saturday, January 5, 2019

Shitty First Drafts

When it comes to writing, I have a healthy dose of self-esteem. So when I sat down to write my 9th book, I was thinking, “Hey, it’s my 9th book. I have written almost one post a day for the last 8 years on this blog, kept up my handwritten journal, written some 150 articles. I pretty much can recognize when things are flowing well and the Muse is with me. Maybe I can edit my own book.”


But it's always good to get a second opinion. So I reluctantly hired the editor of four of my previous books, thinking he would shower me with praise and cross out an unnecessary adjective or two. I sent him the manuscript and he called me on the phone. I heard a lot of heavy exhales as he remarked; “Well, there’s certainly a lot of fat to trim.” I confess I was miffed with him and thought about getting someone else.

Then I read through it again. What was I thinking? What felt inspired at the moment was filled with too much verbiage, unnecessary asides, long-winded stories a la how I talk to kids and more that made me wonder: “Did I write this? Why did I think this was good?”

Short of calling a therapist to heal my deflated self-confidence, I remembered Anne Lamont’s book Bird by Bird. It's a book about the writing process with a chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts.” Here’s what she said:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something -- anything -- down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft -- you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft -- you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Here she not only gives permission to write terribly at first, but suggests that it’s integral to the process. Just splash it all out and fine if you think you’re riding the golden horse of inspiration, but don’t be too disappointed when you realize later that it was a lame donkey. (This my metaphor, not hers—but hey! I like it!). The important thing is to know how to use your eraser and knowing how to sift the real gold out from the fool’s gold. (I know, I’m mixing metaphors here—and there won’t be a second draft!)

In the way that I do, I began to make some parallels outside the field of writing. Maybe a lot of our life is shitty first drafts— just living without brakes and then pausing to see where you are and wondering what you were thinking when you turned down that road. Then back the car up, take out the map or re-set the GPS and keep moving, perhaps a bit more cautiously and slowly. And when the scenery starts taking your breath away, just roll down the window and inhale it in great gulps, knowing you never would have arrived here without first driving recklessly to there.

Back to the book, armed with erasers, maps, sifters and a slow and steady healthy donkey, my full team of mixed metaphors. Charge! 

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