For how many years now—twenty? thirty?—I’ve quoted Anne Lamott’s snarky bit of writing advice, gleaned from Bird By Bird: “You’ve got to write a shitty first draft.” I teach it to students and recite it to myself (even as I write this!) as a balm against revulsion at my mess of bad prose and half-baked ideas. Patricia Hampl’s take is gentler: “A careful first draft is a failed first draft.” Both women communicate a truism about a healthy writing process. Disaster early on gives way to a quality we can’t otherwise achieve.
With some regularity I recommend that clients take a seam-ripper to their careful first drafts, breaking lovely, sequenced prose into patches small and coarse enough to work with. (On arriving home, I not infrequently tell Emily, “Well, I made another writer cry.” Not exactly a selling point for my work.) With greater frequency I apply the scissors to my own projects. A constructed or polished early draft is a dirty kid wearing clean clothes—the stink permeates. On the other hand, a hodge-podge of uncertainty, a memory here, reflection there, nothing adding up, is perfect in a draft. It’s compost. Stuff can grow.
All this I know; this I’ve practiced. Then yesterday, talking with a client who a few years ago set aside a complete, developed manuscript (for which she was awarded an MFA) to begin again from scratch, first by hand in notebooks, then in intimate, probing, brutally honest letters; who has forsaken the beauty and structure of a composed work to show up fully on the page; who sees her memoir foremost as a means of healing, although that priority does not diminish her hope that others might find healing there nor her literary ambitions… This woman taught me a new way to understand the shitty draft.
I’ve always assumed shittiness was in craft and content. The words on the page—their artfulness (or lack thereof) and their meaning (however shallow)—early on benefit from being rough. What I’d never examined was the self those words represented, especially in memoir but, really, in any genre. What my client modeled with both grace and humility was writing a shitty self. A self in draft. A self not posturing, not presenting, not striving. Laid bare.
Witnessing a draft like that is a tremendous privilege. Sure, it’s a mess. But it’s true. Personally, I’d rather read a true mess than a false, elegant masterpiece.
My client taught me that writing a shitty draft (whether it’s the first, second, or tenth) is a transformational practice. It’s an opportunity to inhabit my full humanity on the page—a chance to see the mess of me, with great forbearance, and begin working there. Once again I think of Julia Alvarez’s commiserating comfort: “I was once in as many drafts as you.” Being so rough on the page is humbling, humiliating. But having seen many a shitty draft mature I trust the same is possible for me—for us all.