The power of shitty first drafts

I think Anne Lammott gets the credit for establishing the power of “shitty first drafts.”  She says as long as you sit down and write something, anything, you have the chance at editing something terrible, into something good, into something terrific.  But if you have nothing in front of you, you have nothing to cultivate, and that’s not a good feeling.

Until the beginning of this summer, I was lost in that uncultivated place.  I had been told so many times, both blatantly and insidiously, that was I stupid, that my values were misplaced, and that my project was unimportant, that I couldn’t hear the voices telling me I was good at my work.

As a consequence, I developed a bit of rust.  Not engineless-tractor-in-the-cow-shed kind of rust, but a layer just deep enough to make each attempt to restart my project a slog.  Given my depleted confidence, I interpreted that slog as incompetence.

But eventually, with enough distance from the insults and some time to revisit my notes and books, I waded through the slog and emerged on the other side with a shitty first draft of a brand new chapter.

I one-hundred-percent did not care that it was terrible, because by god, it was at least done.  I’d made it, and now I had a tangible thing that I could craft into wholeness.  It helps that I love editing, but I think I would have been excited regardless.

I made it good, sent it off, and worked with my advisor to make it terrific.

Then, I sat down and started working on shitty first drafts of my second chapter and my theoretical interlude, which led to two massive realizations:

First, I had actually never lost my confidence as a writer.  I had only misplaced it.  It was there, the whole time, buried under a giant pile of inactivity, and as soon as I started writing again, feeling the keys, making connections, I felt real and concrete and powerful.

Second, it doesn’t matter what’s on the page as long as something is on the page.  It really, truly doesn’t.  You can always go back and make it better.  But, like Lammott says, you have to have something to improve, before you can improve it.

So, if you’re feeling rusted, incompetent, sad, or stupid, go write.  Get that first draft down on paper, and let it be absolutely, positively terrible.  Sometimes my first drafts are nothing more than six possible introductions, some fleshed out bullet points, and a wandering conclusion.  But they’re tangible.  That’s the important point.

Print out your draft, lay it out in front of you, and start writing all over it–what’s good enough to keep, what’s important, what’s missing.  Stay with it.  Keep going.  Trust your good.  And cultivate your terrific.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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