“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
When I decided to write 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo, I thought I would be stockpiling blog content for easy future access.
I was overly optimistic. Instead of having an inventory of grab-and-go posts, I have a notebook full of what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.”
“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.”Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
That’s sweet and all. It makes writing sound like fun.
But shitty first drafts, as I understand them, are trickier than this.
First of all, if you’re going to write your draft in longhand, you need to write it so someone can read it. Otherwise, you’ll be struggling to type up your shitty first draft from an even shittier chicken-scratch draft.
Second, that “you can shape it later” advice? Waaaaay harder than it sounds.
Lamott has a chirpy explanation for how she does it:
“I’d sit down (with the first draft), go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft.”
At first I thought she was being cute by using the word kicky. Now I understand she means kicky like the way a child kicks and stomps out of the room when her big brother won’t let her win at chess.
This is a lot more work than what I signed up for.
I thought I was doing pretty good to generate 50,000 words. But I was mistaken in expecting that most of these words would find their way into my blog, easy peasy.
It’s a shame because I wrote some good stuff in that compost heap of a notebook: thoughts on learning to read and acquiring a new grammar; homages to Patti Smith and grapefruit; and an essay about friends who eat worms.
And now I’m supposed to “take out everything I possibly can”?
In her kind way, Lamott tries to frame this part in a good light:
“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 a half pages.”
One of the things I like best about Lamott is that she’s very open about calling on the Big Guy for help–in writing and in life. She knows what it’s like to wallow in a formidable shitty first draft. And she knows that sometimes what’s called for is an old fashioned talking-to with God:
“He might give you the courage or the stamina to write lots and lots of terrible first drafts, and then you’d learn that good second drafts can spring from these, and you’d see that big sloppy imperfect messes have value.”
I guess now I just need to hold my nose and get back in there to write the second drafts.