Full disclosure: this blog post originally appeared, essentially in its entirety, on the Stockholm WriMos Blog. I’m reproducing it here because 1) I wrote it and 2) I still think it’s helpful.
I took a lot of writing workshops in college—par for the course when you’re a Creative Writing major. They were a tough slog, but everything was worth it for this one valuable insight:
First drafts are not the final product.
It sounds so banal, doesn’t it? So self-evident, so obvious. But the difference between what you scribble in that so-late-it’s-early madness and what gets finished (maybe even published!) isn’t just cosmetic. It is huge. Substantive. Significant. If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you might recall that King touches on this. If you’re an aspiring writer and you haven’t read On Writing, you should, but for this blog post I’ve dug up something even better than King’s example. It illustrates the reality of this little truism better than I ever could.
Elizabeth Bishop and “One Art”
Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet during the middle of the last century. A few of her poems are bound to come up in the study of English writing and American poetry, in particular, her villanelle “One Art.” reproduced below:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Pretty stunning little poem, isn’t it? Every time I revisit it, it gets me.
How many drafts do you think it took Bishop to pen this? Certainly a few. But could you quantify it? I’ll let you take a moment to guess.
She wrote 16 drafts of this poem.
The truly fantastic thing is that, because she was so contemporary, we have a pretty good record of her stuff, including those drafts. All 16 are still around today (and are, I’m sure, part of some university’s fancy literary collection).
My writing professor photocopied selections from those drafts (images of the original, handwritten drafts!) and handed them out to us as part of her lesson on the importance of revisions. I forget whatever it was she said that day (sorry, professor!) but just seeing those changes and that personal struggle on the way to a finished product was lesson enough. Unfortunately, I failed to keep that handout. But the Internet has preserved their content, if not their original form. Go read them now. Even if you’re not a poet (I’m not). Even if you didn’t like the above poem. My point is not only to illustrate the difference in quality (that is, at the end of the day, subjective) but also the difference in form, in content, in voice.
If you don’t have time to read all of them, then at least read this first draft.
The Art of Losing Things
The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”.
Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
– This is by way of introduction.
I really want to introduce myself – I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.
You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid” – but
Maybe it’s lost too. I won’t know for sure for some time.
I have lost one long (crossed out) peninsula and one island.
I have lost – it can never be has never been found –
a small-sized town on that same island.
I’ve lost smaller bits of geography, like
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay.
Two whole cities, two of the
world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful
although that’s beside the point)
A piece of one continent –
and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever.
One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one averaged-sized not especially——— exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful and
But it doesn’t seem to have, at all … the hands looked intelligent)
the fine hands,
a good piece of one continent
and another continent – the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc… – but he who
loses his love – never, no never never never again –
The difference between the two is something to be marveled at. Not only for the difference between the first and final drafts, but also for the fact that Bishop had the dedication to work these scant few lines over 16 times until she found what she was looking for.
What’s Ernest Hemingway got to do with it?
This quote gets around a lot, especially during NaNoWriMo, but it bears repeating:
The first draft of anything is shit.
This doesn’t mean that all first drafts (including this one) are automatically mind-breakingly awful. (I would not deign to call a Poet Laureate’s first draft “shit”; that smacks of hubris.) Some certainly are mind-breakingly awful; some are quite good. Chances are yours will fall somewhere in between. But, with rare exception, you will think what you have written is shit. And it is your own judgment call on your work that matters the most, at the end of the day. If you are perfectly content with the first thing that comes out when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you are a sparkling rare unicorn but also probably have no need for motivation or inspiration or pep to sit down and write. Why are you even reading this?
But if you are not that sparkling rare unicorn who loves everything they write on the first go, then you need to embrace the possibility of your first draft being shit, because at least some of it will be. It is not a pretty truth and it can absolutely get overlooked in all the hype and run-up to NaNo. “Nothing is perfect in a first draft,” they say. True. But that’s a euphemistic spin on this cold, hard truth:
Some, if not all, of your first draft will definitely be terrible.
Not just “not perfect.” Not just “not that good.” Some of it will be awful.
Say it a few times until it sinks in. Look in a mirror if you have to. Channel your inner Elsa and let it go.
You need to have that Zen experience of realizing that you will write shit, the first draft of anything can and probably will be shit, otherwise your dreaded Inner Editor will come out and stop you from adding new words to the paper. If you cannot make peace with that fact, you are going to have a tough time—not only with NaNo, but with writing anything. Ever. For some reason, people seem to be able to apply this lesson to any other skill (drawing, learning a musical instrument, building things) but when it comes to writing people refuse to believe it. Maybe it’s because writing is a skill we study more in school than art or singing or carpentry?
Now, this got pretty bleak, and the point of this was to be a pep talk, wasn’t it? Here is the silver lining of this “it’s all going to be awful” philosophy:
It is one of the most potent cures for Writer’s Block known to WriMos.
Having that Zen moment and giving yourself permission to write shit, through some weird alchemy, turns into giving yourself permission to write. For real. Even if you just do NaNo for fun and have no aspirations to publish or revise or edit or even read what you wrote ever again. Permission to write shit is the big gun you need when a deadline isn’t enough. (For many people, a deadline becomes that path to Zen mastery, but sometimes it’s the other way around.)
It is also an essential part of the revisions process, but more on that in another post.
My first draft? Is definitely going to be terrible. It is going to be cringe-worthy and awkward and there will be moments when I will want to delete the whole thing out of shame. It’s in those moments when I recall Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Hemingway and press on. I am, after all, in good company.
And so are you.
Here’s to writing shit! We will all do it, and we will all be better for it.
To fifty thousand!