RETHINKING THE SHITTY FIRST DRAFT
by George Dila
I do not write shitty first drafts.
In fact, that phrase, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, popularized by Anne Lamott, offends me—both the idea of thinking of my own work this way, and also that word itself, shitty, to my ear an ugly and repellent adjective.
What does the phrase mean, though?
To quote the wonderful Miss Lamott, from her book-that-everyone-has-read, Bird by Bird, “The first draft is the child’s 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.”
This method of writing is Miss Lamott’s answer to the self-doubt most writers experience when faced with the blank page, whether they are writing a poem, a short story, an essay, or a novel. It is also her antidote to the unrealistic desire for perfection writers wish for their work. Just let it all pour out. Let it romp around. The result will be shitty, but you can make it perfect, or at least better, later on.
“All good writers write them” Miss Lamott tells us.
And, it seems, most advice givers seem to agree. Obviously, they tell us, the only reason the first draft exists is to get us to the second draft, and the third, each one, presumably, getting closer to the perfection we crave. Plow ahead, we’re told. Get to the end without revising. Give yourself permission to write badly. Write from start to finish. Force yourself if you must.
One went so far as to say, “If you can’t write a shitty first draft then you can’t be a writer.”
Well, I can’t, won’t, and don’t write them.
In fact, I cannot even allow myself to write a shitty first sentence, let alone immediately follow the first with another few hundred shitty sentences. This does not mean that what flows from my brain through my fingertips through the keyboard and onto the monitor’s screen is exactly what I want it to be. In fact, I am a ruthless reviser, an eager re-writer. The difference between the way I write and the “let it all pour out” Lamott method is that I do exactly what she warns against— obsessively revising as I go along.
Imagine building a house using Miss Lamott’s pour-it-all-out strategy.
The builder has all his materials on site. He begins pouring cement for the foundation, it is uneven and the cement is somewhat watery, but he can’t stop to fix it. He begins hammering the walls up. They are cockeyed, and a bit shaky, but no problem, he can fix them later. He begins working on the roof. Oops. Forgot the electrical wiring. Well, he’ll get it later.
You get the idea. The builder would end up with a pretty shitty house; so shitty it would probably be easier to tear it down and start over, maybe a little more carefully the next time.
Well, I am here to speak out for we careful builders, we obsessives, we writers of short fiction who write slowly, laboriously, painstakingly, and with no apologies, constantly fixing as we go.
Let me use as an example the short story I am working on right now.
I know how important the opening of a short story is. I know what the first sentence or two must accomplish. So I can’t allow myself a shitty first sentence. The whole narrative depends on that opening. For this new story, I worked on the opening sentence for a couple of writing sessions, trying different strategies, different approaches. Through trial and error, the sentence suddenly came together. By the end of that writing session I had an acceptable version of it, which I revised the next day, to my greater satisfaction. Only then did I proceed. The writing of the story will continue this way; revising what I have written, then writing a few more paragraphs, or even a few more pages, and then revising again.
When I have completed what some might call the first draft of the story, it will have already been revised hundreds of times. It will be a competent story at this point, but still open to some revision, to polishing, to “tinkering”. But it will not be shitty. It will not be a mess.
This is not a method I recommend for everyone, but it is the only way that works for me.
“All first drafts are shit,” Hemingway said. I think what he should have said was “All my first drafts are shit, because that’s my writing method.” But it’s not my writing method.
Not to say that wonderful literary work cannot be produced by pouring it all out and fixing it later. But it is not, as Miss Lamott and others would have us believe, the only way to write.
So my advice, contrary to Miss Lamott’s, is to write the way that works for you. If it works for you to pour it all out, pour away. If you can’t write that way, don’t try. And by all means, don’t feel guilty about it. Obsessively revise as you go. Anne Lamott will never know.
George Dila is the author of a short story collection, Nothing More to Tell, published by Mayapple Press in 2011, and the short story chapbook Working Stiffs, published by One Wet Shoe Press in 2014. His short fiction and personal essays have appeared in numerous journals, including North American Review, Raleigh Review, Flare: the Flagler Review, Potomac Review, Palooka, Literal Latte, Fiction Now, and others. His flash piece “That Summer” appeared in Issue No. 2 of Cleaver. A native Detroiter, he lived in Ludington, MI, a small town on the Lake Michigan shore. George passed away unexpectedly and peacefully in April 2016, while vacationing with his family in New Mexico.