The power of awful (offal) first drafts

This is one in a series of essays being published this year celebrating the craft of writing. They will become chapters in my new book, "The Big Book of Good Writing Advice," to be published by Little, Brown. You can access the chapters at this link.

When, over the course of a quarter-century, a writing book retains its sales and popularity, when it commonly ranks high in surveys as among the best, when it is quoted in other books, essays, and workshops on the craft — that means something.

Popularity matters. I don’t mean the kind of popularity that drives sales of lurid novels. I am talking instead about the kind of popularity that signifies utility, as when the parents of Baby Boomers raised kids like me with the help of "Baby and Child Care" by Dr. Benjamin Spock.

For writing books, it is the kind of popularity that drove "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser to sales of more than a million, the kind that "The Elements of Style" acquired when E.B. White added his thoughts on writing to a work created by his college teacher, William Strunk, Jr.  So popular is that book that it acquired an eponymous title: Strunk & White.

That reflection brings us to another writing book, arguably the most popular ever written by a woman. That book is "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" by novelist, memoirist, activist, and Christian author Anne Lamott, a work first published in 1994 and a top-selling writing book ever since.

When we evaluate writing books, it helps to distinguish between two kinds. One is primarily about craft: how to write. The other is about identity: how to live the life of a writer. My books, for example, fall into category A, with dollops of category B as a sweetener. When I analyze a poem by T.S. Eliot, for example, I might mention that Eliot died when I was a junior in high school and that I played the electric piano in a Long Island garage band named T.S. and the Eliots.

Lamott is primarily a memoirist whose books, such as "Traveling Mercies" and "Plan B," recount her journeys of faith, prayer, and church as she copes with the struggles of life, including depression and addiction. There are few authors on these topics who write with as appealing and forgiving a voice as Lamott’s. She writes the kind of books that you pass along to a friend who might need a booster shot of care and encouragement.

Here is a passage I marked up from "Traveling Mercies" in which she describes an effort to extract herself from a bad relationship:

Later that afternoon I went to sit along by the river. Cottonwood fluffs flocked upward through the sunbeams as if hearing a call, and children ran along the edge of the river like little bankers, gathering stones and pebbles, grasses and twigs. I prayed to know what to do, and I kept thinking I was hearing an answer, but it was like a one-woman Ping-Pong game: I decided he could go, I decided he couldn’t, I decided he could. I realized that I was getting crazier with every passing moment, and since you can’t heal your own sick mind with your own sick mind, I needed to consult somebody else’s sick mind.  So I called all of my smartest friends.

Half said I should let Sam go, half acted as if I were considering buying Sam a chain saw for his birthday. But all the ones who believe in God told me to pray, so I did. Here are the two best prayers I know: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” A woman I know says, for her morning prayer, “Whatever,” and then for the evening “Oh, well,” but has conceded that these prayers are more palatable for people without children.

Needless to say, I still didn’t know what to do.

That personal, self-deprecating, confessional voice makes its way — some would say too often — into "Bird by Bird," mostly to good and practical effect. One of the best and most personal lessons is embedded in the title.

(Before we get to the lesson in the title, please accept this public service announcement about finding a title for your next writing book. If you are lucky enough to find a publisher, don’t be surprised if they exercise a veto power over your title, or choose the title themselves. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald had to be wrestled by Maxwell Perkins into choosing "The Great Gatsby" over "Trimalchio in West Egg."  Good work, Max. In my case, in 2006 I very much wanted to name my new book "Get the Name of the Dog." Why? Because the first writing and reporting strategy I learned in a newsroom was this: If you are out covering a story, and there is a dog in sight, do NOT come back to the newsroom without the name of the dog. It is a lesson on attention to detail, an important strategy for any writer working in any genre. “Uh, no,” argued Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch. The book will be "Writing Tools." And thank goodness. When I Google “name of the dog,” I get referred to dog books.  And when I Google "Bird by Bird," I get, in addition to Lamott’s book, a bunch of books on ornithology and bird watching. The good news is that a book title can be both clear and evocative. I was delighted that my publisher was said to love the title of the sequel to Writing Tools. I called it The Glamour of Grammar.)

Bird by BirdIn most of my favorite books — with the possible exception of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" — the title of a book, sometimes the phrase itself, appears somewhere in the text. So it is in "Bird by Bird." Lamott describes an incident in which her brother, at the age of 10, cannot build any momentum on a school report on birds. She describes her brother as “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.” But this story has a deus-ex-machina resolution:  “… my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’” This is splendid advice: Break down a big project into its smallest, most manageable units. (Perhaps I should title this project I am working on "Book by Book.")

Out of all the helpful advice for writers in "Bird by Bird," I find this the most meaningful: Develop the capacity to tolerate what she calls “shitty first drafts” as a necessary stage upon which to build something acceptable, even beautiful.

As for shitty first drafts  — I prefer to call them "zero drafts" — “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” There are very few writers, she argues, who are “typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.” She calls that illusion the “fantasy of the uninitiated.”

She ups the ante with intensifiers: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” For her, this draft is a “child draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” There is a kind of shame in the way she describes this — almost like potty training. The key protection is that “No one is going to see it.”

To which I am tempted to respond: “Why not?  I’d love to see it. I would consider a bad draft from a great writer as a blessing, a treasure trove I might learn from. But these are her nasty drafts, not mine. Her descriptions of her own work are filled with angst. She feels in a “panic.” She suffers from imposter’s disease: “It’s over … I’m ruined. I’m through. I’m toast.”

She looks for antidotes to the poison. Inspired, perhaps, by the work of writers such as Dorothea Brande, she learns to tell those negative voices in her head to shut up. She will need those critical voices, but later in the process. She teaches herself to look for that gold nugget in that awful, offal first work. She turns writing into the mechanical act of typing, thinking with her fingers until an idea or image appears. She applies “bird by bird” to her own serial progress. All of this requires her to trust her process, telling yourself that you have driven through this tunnel before, and that you have always made your way into the light of day.

This is useful: “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.”

As I re-read "Bird by Bird" — given that Lamott’s spiritual memoirs are so consoling — I was surprised but not discouraged at the violence of the language she used to describe her methods and her feelings toward them. Perhaps this can be taken as vintage hyperbole for writers, like Red Smith, who described the struggle of writing as waiting until drops of blood appeared on his forehead. Lamott writes about “keeping those crazy ravenous dogs [of doubt] contained.” She even talks about an exercise in which she closes her eyes, listens to the cacophony of hostile voices, makes believe that each one is a mouse, which she then picks up by the tail and deposits in a mason jar: “Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass….”

Kids, I assure you, it doesn’t get that bad. Just send those mice back into the field, or feed them a little cheese and get on with your work. Do not believe that suffering and self-doubt are the necessary collateral damage of producing good writing. The goal for productivity — and, dare I say, happiness — is not to hate your shitty drafts, but to learn to love them, and yourself.

Years ago, I met a fifth-grader named Mark who had been taught by a great teacher named Mary Osborne that “sloppy copy” early in the process is a good thing. Revision would lead to better drafts. When Mark met me, he was proud of his finished story, which would be published in a school booklet, but even prouder of the 11 drafts — all attached to his final copy — that helped him cross the goal line.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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