After Anne Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts"Of all the people to whom writers are shitty—readers we make work harder than necessary, families we by turns ignore or exploit, acclaimed, undeserving writers we trash-talk—we’re probably shittiest to ourselves. I’m not just referring to the ordinary, neurotic self-loathing, like composing then deleting douche-chilly promo Facebook posts. I mean we have a hard time even saying what we are. How difficult of a sentence is this: “I am a writer.” I know writers who’ve published novels, essay collections, chapbooks, their words all over the goddamn internet…but if they haven’t written lately, or even beautifully enough to their liking, well, they’re not writers. If they don’t make a living from writing (who are these unicorns?), well, they’re not writers. They’re measly teachers or marketers or administrators or physicians, basically bums who also write on the side. Not saying any of us are the literary equivalent of Kim K, but I doubt she wonders whether she’s still an influencer if she takes a few days off Instagram. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Clichés become so for a reason, so I’m not even going to apologize for saying this. I blame the famous old/dead guys. I’m not as much of a dinosaur as I sometimes purport to be, but look, when I attended college in the 90s, I was introduced to two types of writers: the handful of women who wrote beautifully and then went on to kill themselves, and the scores of men who wrote beautifully and long enough to publish writing advice treatises (and only occasionally kill themselves). Before I wrote much of anything, but thought it would be like-a-totally-cool-thing-to-do, I became addicted to the “how does one write” books. And most that I found through Dewey Decimal were written by men.
In his Zen and the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury says that a writer must write with gusto, with zest, with joy, to call himself such, and yes, he uses that gendered pronoun purposefully. This text, published not in 1890, but in 1990, references dozens of preeminent artistic, literary, and musical figures across time, the virtuosos, the best—every one of them men. In this book, he also says his first memory was his trip down the birth canal, a claim I found so obnoxious, he’s the reason I never got into sci-fi. It took me awhile to see the theme emerging in these “on writing” texts, in my teenage years when I was thinking I would like to be a writer: most writing advice was by men pointing to other men (or to themselves) and saying, “THIS GUY! Do it like him!”
Walter Mosley says, “if you want to be a writer, you have to write every day.” Hemingway famously advises to be brief as possible, and also never to think about your story when you’re not working on it, so your subconscious will take over, or some shit. Hardly daring to call myself a writer, I’m loath to challenge Hemingway, but when the story you’re writing is your life, as is the case for memoir-essayists like myself, following his advice becomes impossible.
This is why as an undergraduate, when I discovered Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, I knew I’d found the writing guide I’d been longing for. Written by a female, for one. As suggested by the title, this book proffers advice not just for writing, but for living, and without sounding self-helpy or gross. Her main prescription is “keep heart,” a dictum that’s a bit earnest for my tastes, yet she says it in a funny way. She’s also totally vulnerable, the dipshit narrator in many of her stories. Hard on herself and kind to her reader, everything a fledging writer needs. One essay in particular, “Shitty First Drafts,” became a mainstay in the creative writing and composition courses I taught during and after graduate school. The first drafts are child’s drafts, she says, a place to go crazy (and have fun!) without allowing your internal critics to shout down your stupidity. Historically, my students have loved this essay, because it allows them to say “shitty” in class, and it offers them the freedom to be screw-ups in their writing from the start. “Shitty first, better later” is a paradigm they can live with.
I recently revisited Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” in preparation for an Intro to Memoir class I’m teaching next semester. And I found it’s still great for those starting out, fearful of the blank, white page, but no longer as useful to me. First of all, she cycles through only two main drafts: the “down” draft (the first, shitty one), where you get it all down, and the “up” draft, where you fix it up. Again, two cycles of writing/revision work great for my students, but for me? I need at least five more drafts than that (and many more months) to achieve semi-coherence. I’ve been writing for two decades now and like, yeah, I’m confident my first drafts are going to be shitty. I don’t remember the last time I looked at the blank computer screen fearing the shittiness to come. That’s how deeply Lamott’s advice penetrated when I first encountered it. I expect to be bad at first, really bad and possibly for a while, and it doesn’t bother me. I fully embrace the shit.
But what about once you’ve moved through the first draft and second and third, and it’s been a few months since you started working on it or maybe a year and definitely at least a decade since you’ve been thinking and writing about this subject. What if it’s still shitty, then?
Near the end of her recent gem of a writing advice book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, Allison Williams provides a snippet of sane, sage advice I’m likely to never follow. If you work through draft after draft and no longer find the inspiration, and don’t see it going anywhere, Williams recommends letting it go.
Like the Judy Hopps character in the movie Zootopia (I have young children, these are my references now), I’m constitutionally incapable of giving up. When it comes to my writing or reading life, there may be bitterness, but there’s no end. In fact, if you plan to publish an entire shitty book, send it to me, because while I will never publicly pan another writer’s work, I will read every word of it. My friends say they don’t have time to read bad writing, which, okay, friends, show me your iPhone Weekly Usage Report. I just feel like I really need to know fully why a piece of writing is shitty, and I can only know the answer(s) to that when I finish. This rationale also accounts for the reason why every time I’m bitten by a mosquito, it takes a year to heal. I scratch and I pick and it bleeds and I peel and it bleeds and heals slightly, until I itch and pick and peel all over again. Bad habit for the skin, but good for the writing.
Allison Williams is much wiser than I am, so please buy and read her book and take her advice. But, if you’re a stubborn asshole and have a propensity for being slightly dumb about a lot of stuff (like Lamott, and me!), here’s another way: if you go through a handful or two of drafts and it’s still shitty, or maybe the draft has upgraded to “not quite right,” and you still work on it, and you don’t throw your hands up and say, “this is unworkable” or “my powers are gone forever” or “back to mahjong!”, then you are a writer.
I’m not suggesting you keep working on a project that you have come to hate, or makes you hate yourself or humankind. If it’s no longer important to you, that shitty fifth draft, press pause. Regardless, you’re still in it. You made it. You’ve made shit. It’s that simple.
But if you’re like me, unable to give up on our shit, how does one practically do this? Keep working through scores of drafts and feeling like there’s little-to-no progress, or somehow a reversal of progress, and not lose heart?
I don’t know to what extent I’ve learned to consistently write well, but I’ve learned how not to stop writing. I’ve been rejected by publishers and editors and even more by myself (every essay, daily!), and have yet to lose heart.
So, some tips for not losing heart:
*Get someone who loves you and doesn’t know how to critique writing to read your work. Try your mother, or hell, try my mother. She’s lovely and thinks all writers are brilliant. She always says, “I don’t know how you do it, you’re so witty and wonderful.” She offers very little else by way of advice, and while her words may just be one biased woman’s opinion, when I’m at a particular shitty-fifth-draft low, they’re all I need.
*Take a break to be a writer who is also a person. It might be a good time to become a semi-expert or dumb novice at something else. I sometimes enroll in undergraduate courses at the university where I teach, mainly because they’re free, but also to remind myself I can accomplish other things, like earning As in introductory liberal arts courses. Based on the classes I’ve taken over the years, I’m a novice actor, Buddhist, philosopher, and dancer. Learning other things feeds the writing and helps you forget the shit when you need to.
*Revisit old drafts, former projects. Like looking at pictures of yourself when you were thinner, or heavier, or unavoidably, younger, this will provide perspective. You are not static. Even if the draft has not gotten better, even if your work did not feel productive, even if it’s still shitty, there has been movement. If you’ve scratched and picked and bled and healed, you have literally made more of yourself. Even if the “more” is, you know, infected.
*Embrace the joy. It also makes sense to accommodate the not-shit, some would say the sublime, or even the present lucky and beautiful moment of being alive. It’s easy to get cynical in the writing world, but if you feel good about how things are going, then accept that, too. I said earlier I never got into sci-fi, but that’s not true. I’ve read nearly every Vonnegut novel, and in the documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, this line in its stark simplicity asked me to remember what it’s so easy for writers to forget: “When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment and then say out loud, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’”
The niceness, the peace. Cousins to the zest, the joy. Just say it, trust it. You’re typing, you’re trying. You’re a writer.
Dammit, Ray Bradbury, you were right.
Now, I don’t know how useful this advice will be for a novice, or an early-mid career writer like me, and that’s because I only made it through three drafts of this essay before deadline. So in all likelihood, it’s still pretty shitty. But if I know myself, I’ll revise and scratch and pick and make it bleed post-publication. I’ll keep working at it so I can know—and only slightly hate myself because you can’t know this based on the current draft you’re reading—that, shit, I’m actually good. Or if not good, then at least a real writer.
Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for her piece 'Exercises,' which was published in The Normal School and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019, and was a finalist for the 2019 Lamar York Prize in Nonfiction for her essay “Bugginess,” published in The Chattahoochee Review. Her writing has appeared in many print and online journals, most recently in Under the Sun, Barrelhouse, and Miracle Monocle. She is seeking publication for her first collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face.
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