During my time in the Dream Teams, I was fortunate to receive a copy of Anne Lamott’s lovely book about writing, Bird by Bird. In fact, my friend Darreby pulled a reference out of Lamott’s book and made it a relatively early in the Dream Team process. (For newer readers, Dream Team is a group of 6-7 people, who by joining together pledge to help each other identify and begin steps toward achieving a goal. The goal can be anything, from cleaning out a closet to teaching in, perhaps, the Congo, or Venezuela, or anywhere.)
From Bird by Bird¹ comes the concept of Shitty First Drafts, which is presented (in part) by this excerpt:
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. (To read the entire passage, click here.)
I didn’t get the idea of shitty first drafts, at first. Darreby says she had a similar problem; when she was young, she was introduced as such a smart girl — others around her would therefore expect nothing but her best work. At least how she saw it, and that is very much the way I felt, when I was young. (To read about me and grades, click here.) But yesterday, Darreby told me about her experience at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, where she had the pleasure of seeing many first drafts of novels now very well-known and beloved. Here is her story, paraphrased by me.
Darreby saw several first drafts that could be called shitty first drafts, by such noted authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, whose manuscripts were full of crossed out or lined through. When she arrived in front of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, she saw the first page completely crossed out. For just a second, she bristled at the idea that someone would so mark up such a classic work, before she remembered that Dickens himself scratched out those words.
When Darreby finished telling me that story, I suddenly realized that in fact, I had nothing to worry about if I start ten different books. I don’t have to report what I’m doing to everyone, (this is another very bad habit of mine — when I start out reporting what I am going to do to all the people in my life, I set myself up for enormous waves of guilt if I don’t see it through, or I change my mind.) I quake when someone asks me about the status of a project I didn’t finish.
After Darreby told me about those marked-up manuscripts, I felt a little like a newly freed kid, ready to jump in and start writing again. As always, thank you, my dear friend.
I wanted to share this story because I know a whole bunch of would-be writers are stuck with a fear of failing. I hope this story inspires them, as well.
¹ Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Doubleday, New York, ©1994.