I was really young the first time either my parents or my grandparents taught me to find the North Star, then the Big Dipper, then the Little Dipper. I didn’t understand stars beyond star light star bright first star I see tonight, which never netted me the sweater for my Cabbage Patch doll that matched my own. But as a kid growing up in northern Minnesota, it meant something to always know where to find North Star, how to use my tiny imagination to connect those dots to create a vessel to catch the Milky Way. I grew up in a small northern Minnesota town free of light pollution, a place that named its hockey team the North Stars, before the team moved to Texas and lost one of the most unique names in professional sports.
Anne Lamott has shitty first drafts. I have Zero Drafts.
If SFDs are a constellation, then Zero Drafts (ZDs) are the darkening of the sky so that the stars have the space to become visible.
I was really young the first time either my parents or my grandparents taught me to find the Big Dipper, then the Little Dipper. I didn’t understand stars beyond star light star bright first star I see tonight, which never netted me the sweater for my Cabbage Patch doll that matched my own. But as a kid growing up in northern Minnesota, it meant something to always know where to find North Star, how to use my tiny imagination to connect those dots to create a vessel to catch the Milky Way.
- In the UK, it’s called the Plough—and I like that imagery too. The digging into the ___ to find what’s buried.
- The ZD leaves room for placeholders, for repetition, for putting things in multiple places to see where they fit best.
- The value and function of placeholders, so you don’t lose your momentum. Here be dragons! Wrong words in brackets, blank spaces for the phrasing that just isn’t coming to mind.
- The movement, momentum—it’s tough for a zero draft to catch momentum. Maybe, instead, the ZD is the sails themselves—if the sails themselves aren’t up, the boat isn’t going anywhere.
- Polishing the brass, constructing the map because I know what this book is about, but the sails aren’t up, so there’s nothing to catch the wind.
- The gathering, the tipping out, the excavating, the gathering of water.
- A Shitty First Draft would have decided it’s a dipper, a Zero Draft is still playing connect the dots.
- Trying out connections, some connections feel more fruitful than others.
- This might be where I’m going, but not decided.
- Sailors using the constellations to navigate, but not sure where I want to go. In some ways, a Zero Draft is still building the boat.
- Feeling my way through which metaphors might work.
- This might be a separate essay, but might not, so I’m keeping it here.
- I think this thought might be connected to this one, but I’m not sure how or why yet.
Is a Zero Draft a place for idea dumping? Possible source texts and quotes/examples, thoughts, questions. Might not all make it into the same piece, but becomes a staging ground for how you’re framing your ideas until you figure out what’s relevant.
- What is the motivation—or what is uncovered—by a Zero Draft? My point is that it’s not yet a SFD, but it’s more than scattered notes in a notebook. A lot of the time, mine looks like a fat outline, and it’s more an expansion than it is a linear path of discovery. The outline/bullet point works because I can start to organize similar thoughts together.
- Weird hybrid of thought, bullet points and bolding and sentence and thought fragments
- Making visual what the brain is doing
- A zero draft recognizes that the blank page is the scariest part of the process and does whatever it needs to un-blank the page.
- The purpose of a zero draft is to manage risk, not create or foster it. A zero draft writes all the painful, ugly, hurtful things that you know will never make it past a third draft, because you need to write all that emotion into the atmosphere you’re creating. When I was drafting Acadie, I wrote all the things I really felt about my paternal grandparents, all the things I wish I could have said to them, but knew that I’d revise all that out because to keep it would hurt my dad in the long run, and that wasn’t something I was willing to do. It’s not so much that you can do anything in a Zero Draft, but the purpose of a zero draft is to create the atmosphere that your page will breathe (to paraphrase Janet Burroway). If you want an underlying atmosphere of pain and hurt, it starts here in the Zero Draft, not the shitty first draft. Even if you revise out the cutting thing your grandmother said when you were fifteen, the specter of it, the space that it once occupied in the draft, still remains.
- The zero draft shows the viability of the page, which is not something we had before. But it’s complete enough that it’s not just freewriting, or notes.
- A SFD is complete as a draft, it has all your thinking laid out—however thinly—on the pages. Zero Drafts are still transparent. Zero Drafts are playing with technique, trying out what might work.
We don’t always write Zero Drafts—sometimes we go straight through to a SFD.
- Zero Drafts have a sense of potential, of creating enough material on the page to craft and manipulate between our fingers. There’s little vulnerability to a Zero Draft because it’s not to that place yet.
- A ZD is a bunch of light sources, bearings—because you don’t know how to navigate it yet.
- Stars are pretty, but constellations have a function?
- Which light sources are significant? Which are pole stars, which are lighthouses, which are somebody with a flashlight on a beach, random shooting star?
- The point at which your collection of thoughts has a function? A bearing? Actual movement? The moment where you think I KNOW WHAT THIS IS ABOUT, I KNOW WHERE THIS GOING—because you haven’t quite gotten there yet.
On the wall of my parents’ house, there are two 8x10 photographs my father took while a navigator on C-130s for the Air Force in the 1970s. One is of the Acropolis, the other of a thunderstorm taken above the cloud layer. The shape is sharp against the pale blue beyond and it reminds me how I grew up with this language of anvil clouds, wind shears, and how to count the beats between lightning and thunder to know how close the storm was. I remember once he showed me the sextant he had to learn how to use, just in case the mechanics failed somehow and he needed to still get the plane into Guam, or Hawaii, or South America.
Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.