I woke up at around five in the morning the other day (ugh) thinking about the importance of Bad First Drafts. (Anne Lamott’s famous term involved more swear words, appropriately enough) I had lunch with a friend last week who mentioned that she was stuck with her novel and had stopped writing it. As we talked, it seemed that what had stopped her involved in some way the fear of the Bad First Draft. When I mentioned this, she agreed. As I recently completed my own Bad First Draft, I thought it appropriate to speak to its virtues.
First, the Bad First Draft is the mind’s playground. As Anne Lamott says, “[v]ery few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.” In the first draft, I am allowed to write anything I want! Who knows what will spill forth from my brain? It may be awful, it might be ugly, it might not work at all, but sometimes, it’s interesting. It gives me something to work with. It’s the nugget that turns into the novel.
Second, the Bad First Draft is comforting. No one writes something perfect the first time around. I heard Michael Ondaatje speak once and he said he wrote SEVEN longhand drafts of The English Patient on legal pads. Seven. Complete. Drafts. IN LONGHAND. But this was how long it took to get the novel right, and if Michael Ondaatje doesn’t fool himself that his first draft is gold, why should I? Knowing that everyone writes bad stuff when they first start banging away at the keys (or scratching away at the legal pad) allows for the mind to play and for the creativity to spill forth.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, admitting the existence of the Bad First Draft shuts down the Inner Critic. Who is this Inner Critic? It is the little voice in your head chiding, “That sentence sucked. And your characters speak like robots in need of reprogramming.” The Inner Critic kills creativity. It murders whimsy. It is not nice and it needs to be silenced. Because if you try to sit down and write a first draft that the Inner Critic will like, what you write will be terrible. I say this from personal experience.
I spent a lot of my time in writing grad school denying the existence of Bad First Drafts. I figured that if I sat with a story for long enough, when I started typing, what would appear on the page would be distilled brilliance—stuff the Inner Critic would approve of. I can assure you that this was never the case. With one of my first short stories, my teacher looked at one scene toward the end involving three of my five characters and said that maybe I could make something out of it, but the rest was crap.
I still hear that Inner Critic when I sit down to write a first draft, but now I tell her to be patient. When she pipes up mid-Bad First Draft with a snarky comment, I remind her that now is not her time. I will need her when I start revising, but not now. While in my Bad First Draft, I am in my creative sandbox, shoveling up big mud pies of awfulness in hopes of sifting out those nuggets that can be strung together into a story. I am playing. Inner Critic, let me play.
There’s still time to enter the Dogs of the Drowned City contest—send me your submissions! Happy Passover, Good Friday, and Easter!