The Joy of Bad First Drafts
by Brian Flatgard
Ernest Hemingway declared most first drafts to be shit, and Anne Lamott famously encourages the shitty first draft. Today I’ll share my experience writing a first draft, and how embracing bad writing is the path to a great book.
There are a thousand ways to avoid writing, but only one way to write: commit words from your brain onto a screen or paper. For me, the challenge is to reach a state of flow where I’m fully and fearlessly engaged in the writing process, and to keep the flow going once I’ve put down those first few words.
I’m at work on a memoir about my father and his death. It was difficult enough to revisit old emotions, and the last thing I needed was to hear my own voice declare that my writing wasn’t honoring my dad. Then I read about the concept of the “shitty first draft,” and let that become my writing mantra.
There’s tremendous power in willfully writing poorly. I had no thought of what was good or correct or chronological or appropriate for my book. I simply sat down, committed myself to not moving for an hour, and grabbed the pen. And then wrote unceasingly, letting myself mess up, go down wrong paths, repeat myself, contradict myself, revel in clichés, and write bad metaphors. Any time I told myself the writing was bad, I reminded myself that this was my intention and I kept writing.
Amazingly, my writing improved after about 20 minutes, and I would often write for much longer than my hour minimum. I wrote many false starts, which I came to see as warmup laps before actually entering the race. My wrong paths led me to realize that aspects of mine and my father’s lives – which I had thought were boring, or had taken for granted – were in fact deeply important to the book. I’d end each writing session amazed that I’d filled up so many pages of my writing journal.
More importantly, I enjoyed writing. I told myself that nobody would ever see this first draft. It was my own private plaything. I spent months doing this, until I finally realized I had not much else to write for the memoir. And that I had 96,000 words waiting for me to shape them into a second draft.
My metaphor for that first draft is spitting in the dust. I made a big mess and got my hands dirty as I shaped that wet clod of words into clay: raw material I am using for the merely crappy second draft.
Brian Flatgard is a writer and poet living in Phoenix, Arizona. His website is brianflatgard.com.