Every writer has faced the reality of what author Anne Lamott calls “Shitty First Drafts,” in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you’ve never read this before, it’s a great piece on the topic of revision and editing. There’s a link available by clicking the title above to these appropriate musings about the work that goes into the first draft, how she approaches it, and what she does to follow it that has proven most successful for her. The most important message that Lamott has to offer in this regard has to do with letting go of the need for words to pour effortlessly onto the page without problem and quite near perfection.
Seldom if ever do writers have even the simplest parts of what they are creating fully fleshed out by the completion of the first draft. And if there’s one piece of advice that I can personally offer in this regard, it’s that when you do have that notion that you’ve really nailed it on the first try and that your little darling was truly born into perfection with no need for adult supervision to see it through K-12 and then off to college or into the professional world, you should probably force yourself to step back, because it’s entirely possible that you are misleading yourself. Put it away for a while. Preferably it finds residence in a drawer where you will not see it and be tempted to tinker further with it. You are too close to it to give it an honest appraisal. You may be incapable of seeing the piece for what it really is, at least for now.
What you say? A writer who deludes himself? Certainly, we writers are all clear-minded individuals who’d never let something like ego get in the way of our art. Right? This doesn’t apply to you because you are a special case. Your best work goes directly from inspiration to concept to perfect execution on the page, first time, every time. I spent many years as a writer deluding myself with the notion that if a story didn’t come together in the brief span of time that I first felt “inspired” then it was doomed to failure and was not worth coming back around to revisit. It is truly astonishing the number of projects I abandoned because of the misguided belief that it had to be right, right away.
If you still don’t believe it possible that you might delude yourself into seeing and feeling things that just aren’t there in the first draft, or feel incapable of dealing with the reality of your own “shitty first drafts,” just take a moment to rifle through some old writing. And please, pick something that you know you used to really like, the further back, the better. That’s right, pull out all the stops, go to your writer’s garret (because all real writers have garrets where they sit thoughtfully waiting for the muse to strike) and find the oldest, dustiest file or pile. If you’re a writer like me you keep everything neatly organized in piles, the ages of which are decipherable by the amount of excavation that must be done in order to find them. It’s a soft science similar to aging ancient civilizations based on the geological strata that corresponds to the level where they are found.
Anyway, find that old piece of writing, and resist any urge that it might inspire within you to impulsively search for the Underwood you have somewhere in the basement or attic. Don’t get sidetracked by the mix compact disc you found in the middle of the pile which your ex-significant other made for you to take on that plane ride twelve years ago. Take said piece of writing, and read it. This is an exercise in honesty with yourself. No one said it would be easy. Indeed you did write this, but it sounds like someone else, right? Juvenile perhaps. A testimony to the fact that you’ve come a long way as a writer, and to the fact that your vocabulary has grown by at least a full third.
You now pick better subject matter. Your plot devices aren’t nearly as obvious as they used to be. Your story arc used to be more of a story anarchy. The ten pages of exposition at the beginning, you know, so that readers understand the five generations of history that preceded the birth of your protagonist, is something that you now try to avoid. You had remembered that the piece had been pretty good, even though you were a much younger and less experienced writer, but it’s difficult to read this now without wincing every other sentence at something that you’d clearly do differently now that you know better.
Other than being the aforementioned dose of reality that we all need from time to time in order to get some perspective on our creative efforts, this kind of look back at how we used to write gives us insight into our current process and reaffirms that given enough time, almost any piece of writing can stand to be improved. Part of finding your way to becoming a better writer and self-editor is acceptance of the stark reality that not everything we write is going to be great, and that the first draft is the perfect place for imperfection to sit comfortably while we pensively ponder our revision, knowing that all the great writing that’s out there rooted itself in soil of
mediocrity. Many drafts later it evolved and morphed into a thing of beauty. And it would have never been anything or gone anywhere had the writer not allowed it to exist for at least a short time as something paying its dues in the solitary confinement of a first draft.