Anne Lamott refers to all first drafts as “shitty first drafts” in her book Bird by Bird (which is a wonderful book that, unlike this blog, may actually aid you in your attempt to master the written word). When I was first told the theory of the shitty first draft, I felt validated in my struggles with what I produce when first sitting down to begin a new piece. I used to struggle with every sentence that I placed down on the piece of paper in front of me, as though it was the final draft, and there was no changing it. Anne Lamott made it possible for me to write really terrible things and then erase them.

In my final year of college, I was silly enough to take a class on screenwriting for television. This class was by no means helpful, except for one thing: on the first day we made the pledge to write crap, if it meant the difference between writing and not writing. because as my professor put it: “crap on paper is better than art in your head.” I began writing even if I was fresh out of ideas.

My first drafts became sloppy. They became drunk.

My advice (which should never be taken) is to treat your first draft as the sloppy drunk of the party. Not the sloppy drunk who threw up in the kitchen sink and then passed out on the couch at 9p.m. But rather, your drunk uncle who shows up at every family-get-together three hours late (Not the uncle who hugs you for an uncomfortable amount of time, the other one). If he leaves, he is always the last one to go, and Grandma always drives him home. He is the person who tells you all of the family history. Sure, everyone may be discussing when to stage his next intervention, but they still applaud the Thanksgiving when he called that one aunt crazy, because she is. He no longer cares what people think of him. He doesn’t care because he won’t remember it. Plus, he’s telling you things you need to hear. He’s revealing all of your family’s secrets.

This is how I treat all of my first drafts. I try to lay everything on the table. I want all of my characters’ secrets out in the open. I don’t care what I say, because I can always go back and change it.

I tell Grandma that she beats her grandchildren. I say I’m sorry to my cousin who was disowned by her mother. My first drafts say these things because it is drunk, and it could never say them if it was sober. And if the first draft doesn’t say these things, then nobody will. And then the family secrets die with Grandma, and nobody wants that.

If you don’t have the fun-always-drunk-uncle, you can replace him with your friend who gets too drunk at every party (every group of friends has one of these) and then tells everyone the things they do not want to hear. He or she screams “I hate all of you” (and they probably do), and tops it off by calling your friends “liars,” “thieves,” and “whores.” They never care what you think. They just want people to know certain things.

Our characters want us to know certain things as well. They tell us things that we didn’t know. There is always room for revision. You can take a twenty page story and cut it to three pages in the next rewrite. I did this once. It was hard, but I was glad that my shitty first draft was so drunk it told me things it would never tell anyone. Now go make a drink and get that first draft so drunk it doesn’t know what to do. Then ask it some questions.

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