Every writer I’ve ever talked to or even glanced at has told me that the writing process consists first of simply dumping words out and sorting them after. The lovely Louise Penny told me that I must just heap a pile of merde onto paper first before anything else can happen. Anne Lamott has an entire chapter dedicated to Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird.
I can’t even enumerate all the times this concept has been explained to me, and in so many different, helpful, illustrative ways.
I repeat the words to others and I say them to myself even more frequently, like a mantra. I remind myself that what I’m doing here is finishing this thing. I’m not writing the damn Bible. No divine inspiration here, guys.
So HOW is it, I ask you, that I still can’t seem to get this idea into my so-thick skull?
Every time I write a paragraph (or page or several pages or 100 of them) that feels shitty to me, I’m devastated. Shocked. Appalled.
How could this happen to me?
If this is the point of it, if this is what I’m actually supposed to be doing – then what is the problem? Why do I feel like this? I’m fairly certain it’s because, in my ever delightful mind, what’s going on is that I’m not allowing for an ACTUALLY shitty first draft. I’m allowing for a slightly less perfect first draft. Like Da Vinci’s sketches. They’ll still be famous and clamored after. But just, you know, not quite the Mona Lisa.
It’s so uncomfortable for one to feel that one has failed. There’s a sentence with some distancing. It’s uncomfortable for me to feel that I’ve failed. Shitty first drafts are basically a series of not-quites and failures strung together into a lengthy testament to human frailty, and not only that but of the writer’s particular frailties as well.
Anne Lamott says:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.
This perverse perfectionism is just pride, which is deeply connected to fear. I’m so unchill about failing that I won’t even wait to actually fail before freaking out about it, I’ll just refuse to allow it to happen. My fragile ego can’t handle even the thought of it. And it is a kind of insanity. Perfection is impossible. Trying to be perfect is an exercise in futility. And what is perfect when it comes to creativity, anyways? Don’t we love our flawed, imperfect creations? If we can love people, we can love imperfect art.
Sometimes I think creation is this impossible mixture of arrogance and humility. You have to be convinced that you have something worth putting out into the world yet completely at peace with the fact that everyone might hate it, and possibly even for good reason. You yourself may hate it. It may be garbage.
But – and I’m not saying I know how – I have to get to this place where I can write something terrible, because that is the only way I will get to the place where I will be able to write something. I need to write an entire terrible book and feel that it was worth doing. And, sure, if my book magically turns out to be awesome after the first go-round, great. More than extremely unlikely, but sure. Great. But that is not my concern. It is so far from my concern that I should never spend any time thinking about the possibility.
I should simply be thrilled if I end up with 300 pages of total refuse, because that means I did the thing that all those wise and brilliant writers talk about. I wrote the shitty first draft. And the books that we love and treasure and read again and again – most of them were once shitty first drafts. Just like all the lovely people we adore and want to spend time with were once lesser, more immature and horrible versions of themselves.
So the project is to dig deeper down inside myself and find that acceptance and humility I need in order to actually do this thing (or anything, for that matter).
That sounds easy.