Shitty First Drafts


(Tolstoy) was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote “War and Peace” eight times and was still making corrections in the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are. – Raymond Carver

The first draft of anything is shit. – Ernest Hemingway

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and your shitty first draft.– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life


Upright raccoons.

Don’t ask me what that means. There’s something in this first draft about upright raccoons, but I don’t even remember where or how it relates to the story. Sometimes when you step out of your brain’s way and just let it play in the wee hours, it gives you upright raccoons.

As soon as I’m out of the sheets at 4:30, the mean voices have started. They tell me I’m useless and unworthy, flabby and tired and should just go back to bed because there’s no way a big dummy-dumb like me is going to WRITE A BOOK.  (They’re so mean!)

I have a glass of water. I meditate for 30 minutes. This helps quiet the bully voices. It helps me forget it’s Monday or that I have a colonoscopy later today or whatever.

All the brain-garbage and self-hate in my head needs to float away so the little kid in there can come out to play. He’s hiding. He used to be right up in the frontal lobe with all the dopamine receptors, but years of bad jobs, failures, embarrassment and people dying have made him overly cautious. Now he’s way in the back, ducking down between the Parietal and Occipital lobes, and he’d rather stay where he is, if it’s all the same to you.

When a five-year-old tells you a story, it’s the best kind of ridiculousness. The first draft is their final draft. Details don’t have to travel through an obstacle course of filters, critical voices and life-calluses. It’s OK — better really — that their story doesn’t make sense. They’re telling you a little awake-dream.

Once … there was a … window, and on the other side was a horse, but he wasn’t a horse he was a Reese’s Cup, only you could-dent eat him, cuz if you did, the mean lady next door would come out and kill you with a toilet.

I have coffee for me, and a couple cookies with crunchy peanut butter smeared on them for the kid.

I tell ourselves positive things, ridiculously confident things like, “I am a great, award-winning writer” and “I am hilarious” and “I am surrounded by positive energy.” It’s like those old Stuart Smalley sketches on SNL, where he says to himself in the mirror, “You’re good enough. You’re smart enough.  And, doggone it, people like you.”

But I have to be super-positive to counteract the super-negative brain bullies, who tell me I’m just a Basic Bitch.

The kid, he’s afraid of those people. They think his stories about killer toilets and Reese’s-Cup horses are the dumbest things they’ve ever heard.

So I coax him out with cookies and quiet and nice talk. Let’s pretend this doesn’t sound creepy. I’m talking about a fictional kid in my head here.

But he’d better hurry. It’s 6 a.m. now, and I hear my wife getting up. Floors are creaking. Bathroom cabinets are opening. Pretty soon, I have to get dressed and cleaned and do real-people things.

The kid only has a little more time before he can go hide again. First, he needs to give me at least 500 words of playful nonsense. I’m putting it all together into a book for him.

Yesterday, he was saying something about upright raccoons …


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Favorite Books On Writing

"Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" - Anne Lamott

"On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft" - Stephen King

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