(Image by Chaitra)
(Disclaimer: I’m going to be using a certain word a lot in this post. I don’t normally curse in spoken or written form unless I have a very, very good reason. The simple fact is the concept loses some of its potency if I don’t use it, so I’m going to use it. Sorry, Mom.)
One of the first books they had us read in grad school was “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. I had just started the creative writing master’s program and still had that kind of exuberance I get when first beginning something, so I was a little disappointed that this was the first book we had to read. I expected to be learning about writing, about craft and characterization, not reading a memoir. At the very least, I thought, we should be reading a story. But, being the good student that I was, I read it. Later on, I realized why they had us read this book to start out, because it is a book about writing from a writer’s perspective, and the most important lessons you can learn as a writer are things they will never put in a textbook.
Among the many concepts Lamott introduces, one stands out in my mind, mostly because when I first read it, I rejected it. I’ve learned over the years that this is a common reaction. No one wants to believe it when they first hear it, but as time goes on, and as you become more used to the creative process in general, you learn that it is a universal truth.
The concept I’m referring to is, of course, Sh**ty First Drafts.
The point Lamott makes in her book is that first drafts are, by their very nature, sh**ty. She even goes further to say that they have to be in order to get good second drafts and better third drafts. Like I said, at first, I didn’t want to believe this. It didn’t feel true. Surely, I thought, if I walked in prepared enough, with enough of an idea of where the story was going, then I could at least write a decent first draft. However, time and time again, I have seen how this is true. Even more so, now that I’m seriously editing other people’s work.
First drafts are sh**ty. They just are. Sure there are exceptions. Sometimes you write something so clear and easy and perfect that you start to question whether you actually wrote it or if you’re just remembering something that you read somewhere from some much more talented writer. But the exceptions are just that: exceptions. They’re great, but they don’t make up the majority, and, even more important to remember, if we assume that they are the norm, we will always feel like failures.
Because, as the bumper sticker tells us, “sh** happens.” Part of learning to be a better person is accepting your shortcomings, and part of learning to be a better writer/artist/creative is learning to accept that the first draft of anything will be sh**ty. And if we don’t accept that, we won’t be able to create.
It’s perfectionism, rearing it’s beautiful yet ugly head again.
I want to tell this to so many people, because I see the misunderstanding so much in my fellow creatives and in my clients. The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t. In fact, it shouldn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t be a first draft. The whole point of a first draft is that it’s first, and it will be sh**ty.
Everyone writes sh**ty first drafts. Everyone. Every author. Every artist. The first form of any creative is never not sh**ty, in some way. You need to know this. Because you will eventually write something, draw something, make something, and you might look at what you’ve made and realize it’s sh**ty. Or someone else might point out that it’s sh**ty. And this might make you feel like it’s not worth continuing. That’s a lie. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth continuing. Why would you continue if it were perfect? It it were perfect, you’d be done. Sh**ty means you can continue; you’re supposed to. Because sh**ty first drafts are as much a part of the process as anything. It’s how we get to good and better.
So, if you look at your first draft and come to the conclusion that it is, undeniably, sh**ty, rejoice. Exult in that. Congratulations! You are an artist!
If I were so much braver, I’d sell stickers or a line of greeting cards.
“Congratulations on your Sh**ty First Draft!”
Because I really believe we can not only accept this as a fact but celebrate it. Because we need to. Because there are too many stories of people never going anywhere with something that they love because it didn’t come out just right the first time. It’s not going to. That’s okay.
We need sh**ty first drafts. They are a necessary step in the development of the good work. If we obsess over them we’ll never be able to get where we need to go. It’s intensely counterintuitive, almost paradoxically so, but if we don’t let our work be sh**ty, at least for a little bit, then it won’t ever be good.
So write, draw, make, create, whatever, and when it turns out like you-know-what, breathe a sigh of relief, pat yourself on the back.
Congratulations. You’ve made it.