…quoth the illustrious author Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, her guide/scripture on writing. The chapter this quote comes from, appropriately titled “Sh*tty First Drafts”, completely changed how I write. Before reading this chapter, I would just sit at my computer, paralyzed by the fear of writing a terrible, incoherent sentence. As a result, my fingers would dangle idly above the keyboard, and I would feel like a complete failure. I’d then eat a snack or three, feel bad for myself, and watch something embarrassing on Netflix. This chapter, and the rest of the wisdom Lamott packs into her ESSENTIAL book on writing, helped me to realize that it wasn’t writing crappy sentences that would make me a failure. Not writing at all, with my back crooked over the keyboard like a fleshy gargoyle on my Lazy-boy perch, is what would make me a failure. The gist of this chapter, as Lamott writes, is this:
All good writers write [sh*tty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
I know, none of this is breaking news for others like me, slogging through a draft of something that may or may not be publishable. However, as I’m riding the wave of revising my very, very sh*tty first draft, It’s helpful to remember that it’s OK, there’s still hope; I just need to keep my fingers moving.
[Also, quick tip: it helps to paint your finger nails wild colors to keep things even more interesting as you spend hours staring at the computer. Every now and then you’ll look down and impress yourself with how good your finger tips look. This positive feeling will course through your body, up and down every limb, making the neglected stubble on your legs stand on end, your ears lobes warm, and your lips to spread into a small, smug smile. (These are all great things, trust me. I know.) Hopefully, if you’ve painted your nails well enough, that good feeling will wash across your brain and release some more positive waves. Before you know it, those waves have unlocked some hidden crannie of creativity, thus causing new material to surge back out of your head, down your goose-bumped limbs toward those fabulous finger nails which are frantically typing out all of those great ideas.]
In the chapter, Lamott writes:
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. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. 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.
In my copy of Bird by Bird, I drew an arrow to the “Mr. Poopy Pants” line and wrote “hahaha!” But it’s true. No one has to see what wild ideas you scribble into that draft. Feel free to get weird. In the first draft of my current novel, I really struggled with character names, but I tried not to let it slow me down. I figured I would meet a cat or a coworker at some point with a name that just clicked. So for the duration of the first draft, the antagonist is literally called “bad boy” while the love interest is simply called “boy.” And ya know? It worked fine for me. I’m happy to say that boy and bad boy have since been christened real names.
While Ann Lamott’s book is still hugely relevant to the writing life almost 20 years after it was published, her sentiment of allowing oneself to let go and write terribly was echoed in an interview Karen Russell had with The Daily Beast recently. Russell, who is currently my favorite contemporary writer and author of the amazingly original Swamplandia and assorted short stories, fessed up that she too must strive to write without self-censorship in order for the story to progress:
“I feel like I’m groping my way forward line to line. Writing badly is also hard—you need to give yourself permission to write badly, just to get something down…I think [my writing’s] bad so much of the time. The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare. But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy: despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly.”
Karen Russell’s writing is some of the most beautiful, lyrical prose I have ever read. When I read her stories, I’m constantly asking myself how she comes up with her descriptions, so vivid and textured. Based on this interview, which I’m assuming was done in person, she is also naturally articulate and poetic in her speech. I feel equal amounts of admiration and jealousy for the skill she has with language. I might paint my nails green tonight to match my envy. Or, maybe I should take that green-eyed monster and bludgeon him to death by revising a chapter in my sh*tty first draft, and writing some sentences worthy of Lamott and Russell.
Throwing out 90% of the first draft would have sounded ridiculous to me had I read that immediately after finishing my first draft, but as I’m hacking my way through it with my second draft, I’m realizing she’s completely right. A lot of that crap needs to go in order for the healthy bits to flourish.