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Sunday Salon: Writing First Drafts

The Sunday Salon.comThis week I haven’t done much reading because I’ve been very busy writing.  As I worked, I found myself more and more annoyed with the process of constantly writing and rewriting.  I thought this would subside after I turned in my group project on Friday, but this frustration has reared its ugly head again today.  Instead of giving up, I decided to do some reading about writing to get some help.

The book that popped out to me was Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne LamottBird by Bird is a book that talks about the joys and sorrows of the writing process along with why we bother to write in the first place.  Lamott isn’t afraid to air her own neuroses, and in the process she really nails what I think it’s the underlying terror being a writer can cause.  It seemed like a good book to return to while writing is making me upset.

I grabbed the book of my shelf and went to the chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” (you can read what I think is a full excerpt of the chapter here).  In “Shitty First Drafts” Lamotte talks about the idea that it’s ok to let a first draft of writing be terrible.  You just have to get past the fear of starting and write whatever comes into your head.  Once it is down you can go back to clean up and make the writing better, but you have to trust the process.

Near the end of the chapter, Lamott writes:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Reading this essay, grabbing a fresh cup of tea, taking a few deep breaths, and writing and rewriting this blog post has helped me calm down a little bit.  I’m still a little annoyed, sitting here pecking away at a paper that lacks direction, but I feel more confident that at some point I’ll put the shitty first draft away, take a break, and come back to make the second draft good, and the third draft terrific.

Are there books you turn to for inspiration when you are frustrated (not necessarily with writing, but perhaps life in general)?  How do these books help?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ann (Table Talk) October 26, 2008, 7:54 pm

    I love the idea of the down draft and the up draft. It absolutely encapsulates what I always used to tell my English students. The important thing is to get writing and then you have something to work on. I must look out for a copy of this book. Thanks for mentioning it.

  • Debbie Nance October 26, 2008, 7:59 pm

    Love Bird by Bird, though I’m not sure it has helped my writing at all….

  • Memory October 26, 2008, 8:38 pm

    I hadn’t heard of Bird by Bird before, but I’ll definitely be searching for a copy. It sounds right up my alley.

  • Kim October 27, 2008, 2:30 am

    Ann: I like that idea too, I’d forgotten about it since I last read Bird by Bird. It does remind you that you can’t start improving if you haven’t gotten anything down. That doesn’t make starting any easier, but oh well.

    Debbie: I’m not sure the book has helped my writing in the technical sense, but in the more abstract I think it has. Lamott has a way of calming me down when it comes to writing, which I sometimes need.

    Memory: It’s a lovely book — very easy to read with some good lessons about writing. I liked it a lot when I read it a couple years ago.

  • bkclubcare October 27, 2008, 1:29 pm

    I love this book, too! I can’t say I have a book I turn to when I need help. I do like to google quotes when I need a mood adjuster, though. Does that count? Best of “up-drafting” on your paper!

  • raych October 27, 2008, 4:45 pm

    This book is my secret boyfriend. I always feel like I could write forever after reading it (although usually I just pick up another book).

    Go paper go!

  • Kim October 28, 2008, 12:38 am

    bkclubcare: I look up quotes a lot too, and I keep a notebook full of quotes I’ve found that inspire me. I think that totally counts.

    raych: That’s a great description of a book. What is your favorite chapter?

  • theexile October 29, 2008, 1:43 am

    I go back to Richard Rhodes’ How to Write, especially when I’m down. Or to passages in a favorite novel when my own writing seems bland. I’ve read Lamott’s book and liked it, although I have a hard time with writing a shitty first draft. I tend to write and rewrite as I go along.

  • Rebecca Reid October 29, 2008, 3:20 am

    I love raych’s comment! I always pick up another book even after reading a totally inspiring “You really can write!” book.

    I haven’t read Bird by Bird yet; it’s sitting on my sidetable, though. Has been for a month.

  • Kim October 29, 2008, 1:26 pm

    theexile: At first I had a hard time with the idea of a shitty first draft because I, like you, tend to revise as I’m going along. But there are times, like this weekend, when I get bogged down in revising as a way to avoid actually writing. That’s when I think about shitty first drafts and just sort of go at it for awhile. I’ve never heard of How to Write, what do you like about it?

    Rebecca: Ha ha, me too. Bird by Bird is a pretty short read, the chapters are easy enough. I’m curious to hear what you think once you read it!


  • alirambles October 30, 2008, 4:54 am

    I loved Bird by Bird. It’s been almost 2 years since I finished the first draft of my novel (which didn’t seem shitty to me at all at that point, because I was simply proud and amazed that I’d written a whole frigging book!). I’m still revising it. Now I’m not so much changing the words as restructuring the overall work. I’m learning as I go and I’m a much better writer now than I was 2 years ago. But when I started to write something new, I got discouraged at first because it wasn’t all that great…ok it kind of stunk…and I thought I’d gotten better so why was it so stinky? That’s when Annie Lamott’s words came back to me. I didn’t reread her book but maybe I should!

  • Kim October 30, 2008, 2:00 pm

    alirambles: Sometimes it’s hard to see how first drafts need to be revised right when you finish them. I always have to put mine away for a bit and look at them later. I’m glad the book came back to help — it might be fun to reread it!

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