Every time I sit down to write it’s like whack-a-mole: which obstacle is my brain gonna chuck in the way today? Who knows? It’s a surprise!
One consistent blockage, though, is my arrogant and pathological need to write a brilliant first sentence.
To be clear: the first sentence and the last sentence need to be brilliant; the start and end are the bits people will remember. But they don’t have to come out as the first damn thing we write.
That’s a no-fun pressure cooker to put myself in: you may not make a mark on this paper unless it’s a perfect first sentence. Then, and only then, may you write.
Jeez, my brain is an asshat (as Jocelyn Brady would say).
No wonder I can’t get started. No wonder I stare at the screen, pitchforks stabbing my hippocampus, berating myself for being shit.
The really frustrating thing is: I know how creativity works. I understand perfectionism’s insidious little tricks. And I am allllll about the fun.
Part of the problem, when I sat down to write this article, was that I sat down to write an article. The finished product. The thing you’re reading now. Of course, this isn’t the thing I wrote a few days ago; that thing evolved into this one.
I need to get up; shake myself; start again—and this time, sit down to write a Shitty First Draft. To empty my thoughts from my brain onto the blank page, without worrying about finding the perfect word, or the perfect turn of phrase, or being witty. My purpose, first and foremost, was to make a scratch on the wall. To get all my thoughts about the Shitty First Draft out of my head and onto paper.
Why I was writing this in the first place? Who is it for? It’s not for me (or not just for me); it’s to help you feel seen and heard if you, too, suffer from an inability to get started because you don’t have the perfect first sentence. I wanted to show you the purpose of a Shitty First Draft, and how to use it. And I wanted to remind you that nobody has ever turned out a perfect piece of writing on their first go.
Ideas don’t pop out fully formed; they start as broken thoughts and fragmented questions. Ideas we gather and remember from what we’ve seen and heard and read. Then we smoosh them together on the page, combine them, and see what they taste like. Do they work? How about this way? Or that?
We write to figure out what we’re thinking, and why. As Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
We keep some ideas, and discard others, and empty our brains to clear space for the real creativity: taking what we have and turning it into something that someone else will want to read. We can go back to our outline or spider diagram or post-it notes and see if they still make sense. Does this order seem right? Is there a flow to what I’m saying?
In my first draft, there wasn’t much flow. All the ideas tumbled out because they have to go somewhere so I can be quiet in my head and think.
Writing IS thinking. The way we think is messy, disorganised, fragmented. Thoughts pop in, and thoughts pop out. We circle back, jump forwards, and loop around, and if that’s how the thoughts come out onto the paper for the Shitty First Draft, that’s fine. When we come to organise those thoughts, that’s when we start Thinking, with a capital T. What do I really believe to be true about this? Why? Does it hold up to the evidence? Where’s the evidence that it might not be true? Do I need to—gasp—change my mind?
We can’t create a coherent piece of writing that people will want to read on a first pass; we just can’t. And if we try, we will fail. Instead, the Shitty First Draft is for building foundations.
All it has to do is exist, perfect in its imperfection.
Once we understand that, deeply understand it, writing becomes more joyful; an exercise in easing tension.
It’s a magical talisman, the first draft. It allows us to let go of our self-consciousness, let go of expectations, and play. And from it, we can make the thing we want to make.
The only thing your Shitty First Draft has to do is exist.
Come and write your Magical first draft with me and Jocelyn and Hillary and Misty and Shakila in The Weird + Wonderful Book Society. We start on Thursday.
Notes in the Margin
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