Okay, full disclosure is needed: For those of you who excitedly opened this particular post in the hopes of finding a how-to list telling you exactly the steps needed to get that pesky first draft down onto paper, I offer my apologies. This will be more of an inspirational/analytical/thoughtful reflection on what exactly it is about the first draft that frightens us and how we can try to overcome that fear and just get the fucking thing written. Through the course of this post, I will most likely be quoting and paraphrasing a number of people, all of whom are probably wiser than me and better at the craft of writing. So, without further dudes, here’s my post.
What is something most writers have in common? We place enormous importance on words, specifically our words and the words of the writers we love. We want to live up to those writers and we want them to bestow their holy Pope’s blessing onto our lesser holy works. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been told before to imagine my favorite writer standing behind me, looking over my shoulder as I write. I’ll get it out of the way now while our relationship is still good: my favorite is Faulkner. So it’s not bad enough that this hypothetical writer looking over my shoulder, mine has to be the Faulkner. Now while this may be an awesome tip for revision, I think it’s a great way to drive a stake into the enthusiasm of an emerging writer to give instruction like this. The more we think about how our work is going to compare to others, the more palsied our writing process will become. There’s a reason Mark Twain said, “Against the power of laughter, nothing can stand.” A writer can do no better in talking about writing than to reference another master. Twain knew what all writers know–consciously or unconsciously–that the one thing we want is for our craft to be taken serious, even if we feign irony or ambivalence. It’s always there, especially when we’re starting out with nothing but a blank page. If we get nothing down onto the page for a day, we’re a failure. And anything we do get down automatically sucks and into the trash can it does. “Know thyself, know thy enemy.” The first part of this quote is up to you, but I know your enemy. It’s the enemy of all writers. Fear. We’ve already identified a few different types of fear so far. Fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of being laughed at. These are all valid fears. And they all act like kryptonite to the creative process. As we’ve identified the enemy and pinpointed its major sources (its different forms), now what to do about it? As those will tell you, it’s a lot easier to diagnose than to prescribe. I’ll attempt to do both. One down, one to go.
“The first draft of anything is shit.” -Ernest Hemingway
Despite my sordid past with and current feelings about Hemingway–which I’m sure you’ll become appraised of shortly–I think this is the cornerstone to overcoming the fear that we writers have about that first draft. It is shit. Your first draft is shit. My first draft is shit. Hemingway’s first drafts were shit! This is not–I repeat, not–an insult. This is actually something to treasure. Like Brad Pitt says in Fight Club, “This isn’t the end of the world.” For our first drafts, we have to eliminate the thought of others, the thought of failure, the thought of how its going to look, even the thought of us to a certain extent. For this, I’ll provide an example of one of my instances of palsied creativity.
Today, I was writing a really difficult transition in my story, “Limbo” and I just didn’t feel like I was doing it right, like it wasn’t happening. I just wasn’t feeling it. Each phrase I used sounded stupid and contrived. Suddenly, I wondered why I was thinking so hard about it. Why it was so important to get it done right now. Why it had to be perfect as soon as it came from my fingertips. This battle had been going on for three days now. I had written the opening of my story four different times because it didn’t sound good the first few times. And you know what? Each time I wrote the opening, it got a little better. I’m not saying everything about it was better, or that there weren’t things wrong with it. But that’s another thing to keep in mind: each time you do it, it gets better in some way. There may be some things you did better before and some things you did worse before. The important thing about this is that your understanding of the story gets better and deeper each time you write it. The trick is to save all that came before so that you can take the good from the old and the good from the new and combine them into something the best of both worlds.
After making that first discovery about writing things over and saving what came before, I remembered something I read from Chris Offutt’s essay, “Performing Surgery Without Anesthesia”: “The first draft requires an unbelievable subjectivity; you pour all your emotions into it, you stake your life on every word, you make yourself completely vulnerable on the page. You write in that white-hot heat like a drug experience.” And it clicked. It was true. The subjectivity he’s talking about is the inability to see your work as crap. Complete subjectivity. You write like you’re drugged or drunk–a state of inhibition. Who fucking cares? I’m getting drunk, I’m writing hundreds of words and accumulating story! That’s what you should be chanting. And I suddenly realized that’s what I needed to chant. Fuck everybody else. No one is as good as me (criminally narcissistic self-confidence aside) is what I suddenly felt. Freedom to think what I did was great, if even for a little while as I wrote in a feverish haze. Throw the kitchen sink–fuck the sink! the whole house–into it. You need to get it down and you need to feel good about getting it down and out. Or, as I put it very Freudiantly (haha), you need to unleash the Id. For a short psychology lesson, the super-ego (according to Freud) is the part of the mind that assimilates the rules, customs, mores, and taboos of a culture or society. This, metaphorically (and perhaps even literally) is the part of the mind that puts the creative handcuffs on us as we’re agonizing over what drunken and dubiously silent Bill Faulkner over there is going to say about our fucking baby, that piece of ourselves that we just carved out of us! Of our own being. And so the answer to overcoming this part of the mind is to unleash the Id. The Id, on the other hand, is the Lennon to the super-ego’s McCartney. The Id is the part of the mind that acts according to the “pleasure principle,” completely opposite of the restricted and rule-riddled super-ego. This is what we need for our first draft. We need the part of the mind this is beholden only to our pleasure in writing, to the impulses and instincts that drive our creativity, to that absolute subjectivity we impose on ourselves to get the first draft done. Now, please understand, I’m not suggesting we can actively rummage through our brain and find the “OFF” button for the super-ego. I’m using this basic psychological principle as a metaphor for the writing process. (It works quite nicely, don’t you think?) If it comes down to it, you can employ real-life props to put yourself in the mood. Play “I Just Don’t Give A Fuck” by Eminem on repeat, put on a hat that has “KEROUAC” printed on it, whatever does it for you, do it. I hope this has been helpful, and if it hasn’t, hopefully it’s been entertaining, and if not, I hope it was interesting; if not, then I have nothing else to say but “Fuck off!” Now, with my last little tongue in my cheek, I’ll leave you with some very appropriate words of someone smarter than I.
“A writer must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid.” -William Faulkner