Better the Devil You Know: An Exercise

In a minute you’ll read a writing exercise you’ll hate.  Your hackles will rise and a bitter taste will fill your mouth.  Every bone in your body will resist it.  Here’s my challenge:  Do it anyway.

A first draft is a beautiful thing.  Drafts are well worth growing attached to; they have raw energy, bursts of bright prose, moments of surprise and delight, and a ton of effort poured into their pages.  A draft bears witness to our creativity:  First there was nothing, and now there’s something.  How thrilling!

First drafts done well, however, are also flawed.  The language is too loose, we’ve explored only one of a dozen approaches to our subject, we haven’t yet landed on what the piece is really about.  Anne Lamott advises us to write a shitty first draft, but most of us have no other option.

The tragedy is that most writers stop here, the relief of getting that draft down is so huge.  Our work languishes half-formed between the pages of a notebook or hidden in a computer file.  To give our writing life, it needs revision.

I’ve come to think of writers’ relationship with first drafts as “better the devil you know”—in other words, we’re familiar with the monster of our first draft and we’re terrified of the one lurking around the corner.  Our attachment mires us.  Suddenly the great adventure of writing ends.  Revision scares us because it’s a whole new challenge, and now that we’ve taken one risk with our first draft we prefer to stay put.

Which brings me to today’s exercise—an invitation to meet the monster.  Choose a short draft you’re curious about.  Don’t read it.  Sit down with a blank page and write this piece as though for the first time, without ever looking at your draft.  When new material emerges, let it.  If your prose is terrible, keep going.  What Anne Lamott forgot to mention is that the second draft is often shittier.

A rough draft hacks a path through the dark woods; revision invites us to branch out, to explore the woods, so we can guide our reader with knowledge and confidence.  Simply generating fresh material is one manner of exploring.  Carol Bly wrote that the primary question of this “long middle stage” of writing is “What else do I have to say about this subject?”  This exercise unlocks us from our first attempt at our subject and unleashes fresh thoughts.  So what if the result is abysmal?  If only one brilliant sentence and one a-ha moment appear in this draft, then your next draft will have two brilliant sentences and two a-ha moments, and you’re on the path to fine writing. 

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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