Sunday, September 20, 2009


I gave a talk yesterday, and while my conviction that Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird is a great writing book and everybody should read it had been reinforced, I also realized that my favorite quote from that book could be interpreted in many different ways.

To paraphrase Ann Lamott, you should allow yourself to "write a shitty first draft."

I said that in the comments after my talk. I even said that you could submit it to your critique group. Which put my favorite critique coordinator on her high horse.


Because we have different ideas of what a "shitty first draft" is.

Hers includes grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and other basic goofs of a version that I don't even call a "draft." It's a "rough", maybe. It's something between me and me. Not something for anyone to see. My concept of the "shitty first draft" is a grammatically clean version, checked for spelling, verified for as many basic errors of style as you can spot, but still not ready for the public.

In my opinion, the critique group is a very valuable commodity and should not be abused by off-hand submissions of unchecked pages. But the critique group is also not the (ordinary) public and can help sort through the mess of a first draft.

But back to the "shitty first draft." My perception, when I need to remind myself that it's okay, you can, and must write a shitty first draft, is to turn off the long-term editor and to let the movie reel play out.

Stay in the moment and forget the fine points of style and the elegance of narration. Just do it. Get in on the page. Get the images and the speeches and the actions of your characters out onto the paper (or the virtual paper of your computer screen).

It's not about writing badly, it's about just writing when something's holding you back and the story is pushing to get out.

I couldn't NOT check the spelling on my pages. Or switch a word for a better one on the fly if the substitution occurred to me. Because my mind would keep going back to THAT spot.

But I would make myself stop worrying about how I'll get myself out of that situation. How it will lead to the conclusion I vaguely foresee. How I will resolve the new conflict.

I just write.

And worry later.

The smoothness and perfection (such as it may be) will come later, after many, many revisions and interventions, and applications of sandpaper and buffing cloth.