By Judy Clement Wall
“Shitty First Drafts” is my favorite chapter in my favorite writing book of all time, Anne Lamott’s bird by bird. The book, for those of you who haven’t read it, is equal parts wisdom and neurosis (like most writers I know), and “Shitty First Drafts” was the chapter that spoke most specifically to my particular brand of crazy: my inability to embrace the concept of a draft.
The affliction can be debilitating. I have spent an hour on a single sentence. A day on a paragraph. It is counterproductive and frustrating. If I’m not writing to a deadline, it can result in pieces never getting finished at all. Or worse, never getting started. Somewhere in a corner of my imagination, there is a big pile of beautiful ideas I abandoned before I’d even typed the first word.
The chapter “Shitty First Drafts” is not so much about facing that fear as it is about slipping quietly past it, sitting down and writing, ignoring your inner critic (though Anne Lamott doesn’t call it that; her description of the voices in her head is worth the price of the book). It’s about trusting the writing process, which, of course, begins with getting words down. Any words. No matter how terrible, bumbling, unexciting or imprecise. Getting words down because that’s how every story starts. You have to write the first embarrassingly bad draft so that you can get to the second good draft, and then the third terrific one.
When I read “Shitty First Drafts” the first time, I felt like a prisoner who’d just been handed the key to freedom. I saw the blinding, beautiful, absolute truth in it. “Yes,” I thought, “that’s exactly how it works!” I put the book down, raced to my computer, wrote a truly horrible first draft of a story. A few days later, I wrote a decent second draft, and then a third that was accepted by a literary journal. I became a believer, a bird by bird-thumping evangelical.
“Shitty First Drafts” changed my writing life.
Every single time I sit down to write something new, I forget it all. The critics in my head begin to chatter and they are far louder than either my faith or my common sense. They remind me that I have no idea how to pull off what I’m about to write. They wonder why I gave up a perfectly good Silicon Valley career. They do not approve of my word choice (however temporary), and by my third sentence, they are questioning my command of the English language.
I go through it every time, and then I remember. Just write – crazily, bravely, clumsily, fiercely, however it comes – just write. Everything good follows that.
It’s NaNoWriMo month, and while I think this shitty first drafts thing is essential to all writers, I never needed to embrace the concept more fully than I did during NaNoWriMo last year. You can’t worry about writing pretty when your goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. You just have to get the words down, trust that, in December, you can make them shine.
I leave you with this reassuring (and empowering) quote from bird by bird…
There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and half pages.”
JUDY CLEMENT WALL (aka “j”) is a Course Presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Course. She’s also in charge of guest bloggers for the FoW blog, and she holds the same community-building vision for FoW that Milli does. j has recently completed revisions on her novel, Beautiful Lives, and she blogs about the perils of life, love, writing and cheesecake at Zebra Sounds.