Wednesday, July 31, 2013

First Efforts are Junk (Mostly)

Post by Susan

The day I interviewed Michael Gear, he was relieved that packrats had urinated all over his first novel.

Photo by Bob n Renee from Flickr Creative Commons,
 made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Mike is half of the powerhouse writing tag-team of W. Michael and Kathleen O'Neal Gear. The other half, Kathy, had refused to let him throw it out. When the packrats left their editorial comments on the only copy, she finally relented.

Mike famously began writing after reading a Western that ended with steers calving in an idyllic Montana valley. Faced with that biological impossibility, he threw it across the room and declared he could do better.

So he wrote his first novel. Which was, according to him, excruciating. He said he lived in fear that he would die unexpectedly and someone would publish the thing posthumously.

If Michael Gear, with his bookshelf full of published titles and millions of copies sold has a horrible first effort to his credit, it's not surprising that the rest of us might. Mike might have feared someone would read the novel, but he was brave enough to write it down in the first place.

Anne Lamott, another highly successful writer, extols the virtues of "shitty first drafts" in her book Bird by Bird. (My absolutely favorite book on writing.) National Novel Writing Month makes no bones about the idea that its OK to write a terrible story. In fact, its guidebook has the hopeful title, No Plot? No Problem!

It's OK to get it wrong. Some of our bad attempts are scribbled in notebooks or stashed in computer files we've either forgotten about or put out of our minds on purposes. Some even make it into print. I have a box full of 20-year-old,  cringe-worthy newspaper clips that will require a strong sedative before I can look at them.

I fight the fear that I will write badly, knowing full well I will. While I'd like my writing to spring forth fully formed like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus, it doesn't usually happen. On the rare occasions I think it does, a good night's sleep and a second look upon waking usually cures me of that happy delusion.

I am still finding ways to get through that perfectionist fear. Sleep deprivation or massive doses of caffeine sometimes work. Getting into the physical space I've carved out for writing helps. Committing to writing projects with real deadlines (like this blog!) really puts it on the line. One of the best things I used to tell myself when I owned a newspaper was that writing was no different than digging a ditch. It's just something you do. You keep your fingers moving across the keyboard just like you would keep the shovel moving.

But mostly, I tell myself that I will write badly, and that's OK. We don't smack a baby around when it stumbles its first steps. We don't need to smack ourselves around. Eventually we learn to walk and run.

Do you have a hard time getting that first draft done? Does perfectionism get in the way? What tricks of the trade have you found that help?


Lyn Davis said...

In 1985 before I learned that Michael Landon was dying, I submitted a script for his television show. He was kind enough to critique it and return it through his head screenwriter. I remained friends with that screenwriter for years; he was a great mentor. But now, I get a lot of laughs when reading over Landon's remarks.

Lynn said...

I find that I don't so much get drafts written as snippets, vignettes, parts of scenes and random assertions. If I don't get too hard on them, they sometimes grow and gather. It's my odd process and I'm sticking to it. Thanks for the post.

Luana Krause said...

Procrastination is my nemesis. I find that it often gets the better of me. I also find that when I have too many "activities" and deadlines, my writing takes a back seat. I need to prioritize and edit my life. That's the only cure.

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