Babies in the Middle of Nowhere: Rethinking the Shitty First Draft


In the early summer of 2017, I went to a fasting retreat in the middle of nowhere, Texas, and drank water for 10 days straight. If that sounds extreme, I'd like to state for the record that of all the fasters there, I was the one doing it for the shortest length of time. The Woman with No Inside Voice in the room next to mine had already been there two and a half weeks, and she convinced me, courtesy of the thin walls, that the notion of fasting leading inevitably to a state of heightened self awareness is mostly bullshit, at least for people doing it for weight loss purposes. Nonetheless, I was grateful to her for two reasons. One, the folding canvas deck chair I sat in thinking, not thinking, and writing for hours a day in the sun, wind, and even rain turned out to be something she'd ordered online and had delivered before I arrived. I didn't learn this til the last day on our way to the airport, at which point I apologized for hogging her chair. (Inwardly, I considered it a fair exchange for living through so many high volume, late night episodes of Game of Thrones and high volume, early morning phone calls with her personal assistant.)  The other reason I was grateful to her is that she made me truly glad I'd brought a notebook and pen with me. Nothing ever happened to her that was not dramatic. It was like having a radio soap opera broadcasting live from the other side of the wall.

I'd brought the notebook to chronicle my day-to-day physical and psychological state as I did this thing I'd never done before, knowing that if I didn't write it down, as soon as it was over, I'd be unable to remember whole swaths of it--my sense memory is vivid, my linear memory is wobbly at best. So I wrote about my health and my mind, and also about the woman in the next room and the oddly random sample of other people who happened to be in the middle of nowhere at the same time but who had very little else in common. For the first time in over 20 years, I wrote regularly in a journal. And I not only enjoyed it, I found I needed it. More than a year and four journals later, I'm still doing it every morning. For the most part, this daily ritual isn't Artist's Way type writing--it's not a brain dump, exactly, or stream-of-consciousness, or observation exercises that might turn into essays or a memoir, but rather a record of the obsessive thinking already going on in my head, the same merry-go-round of thoughts that has been circling since adolescence. I don't know exactly how it's helpful, but at this point it feels weird not to do it, like my day hasn't really started or I've gotten dressed without remembering to put on underwear.

I went back through the original journal recently and noticed that I had been thinking a lot about the idea of the "Shitty First Draft," a term that, while not new, suddenly seemed to be everywhere I looked. I found myself coming back to it over and over when I started attending a writing workshop, something else I've never done. Something about the Shitty First Draft kept bothering me. It's a solid and infinitely relatable idea: the first time you put something on paper, or type it into your computer, it's slightly-to-fully humiliating. It looks and sounds nothing like the perfectly formed idea in your head, when it existed only in a state of pure potential. This has been written about extensively and well, by many writers whose work I love. The idea is that you cannot get to the finished version without going through the first part, which some refer to as the Shitty First Draft, and that knowing this will free you to get over yourself and get on with it instead of waiting for the time or circumstances or chair or weather or pen or notebook to feel "right." It's not going to feel right, it's going to suck, but once you're through it, the piece begins to take shape and become less shitty. It will make you cringe less, swear less, over time. This is all true and it all makes absolute sense. But somehow, calling it a Shitty First Draft didn't help me. 

It took me a while to figure it out, and what I've come to is this: it's disrespectful to the writing to call it shitty. Would I want to open myself up to, share my thoughts and time with, and make myself more and more available to someone who called me shitty? I would not. Think of everything a first draft went through just to get here, to the other side of your head, everything you went through. We're lucky to have them at all. I'm lucky. Calling my rough drafts shitty versions of future essays feels like calling a baby a shitty version of a future human being, and while I think we can all agree that babies are notoriously shitty in the literal sense, it's unfair (and ridiculous) to think of them that way in any other context. I have some friends who are babies, and lots of friends who were babies when I first met them, and I've never held a single one in my arms and said--or even thought--God, you're such a piece of shit. Fingers crossed you'll amount to something later on. Likewise, I've never looked at a new mother and said Seriously, this is the best you could do? Nothing this baby says even makes sense. It would be crazy, abusive, and just plain rude. 

Babies just got here. They lived in a state of perfect potential and now they don't--this is the part where we're really, really gentle with them. We handle them with great care and believe them to be special and unique. This is good for babies. We don't hand them to people who look like they might be baby-killers, or who have been known to abuse small animals. If I treated my rough drafts the way I treat kittens, they'd be such happy, healthy cats by now. The puppies would be happy too. I would have house trained them both over time, expecting neither to arrive understanding where I wanted them to do their business and where I did not. Berating, shunning, and failing to show love to kittens, puppies, or other babies isn't a great model for development. It's a fantastic model for arrested development, though.

Every system is perfectly designed to produce the outcome it's producing. Even though I was a full-time, professional writer and editor for years, my writing was not personal or creative in the larger sense, beyond the world of advertising. I was still insecure about that writing, but I could do it. I could not open a notebook and write an essay or short story for myself, though. Then, five hundred years ago, in the time of MySpace, I set up a profile for which I no longer even have the email address to access, and occasionally I posted to the blog on my page. I didn't think of what I wrote as essays or even as "writing." This is perhaps the one way social media enriched my life: it got me to write and then made me realize there were people who liked reading what I wrote. I didn't obsess over my posts because they weren't going anywhere important and because I could always go back and edit them later if I felt like it. Most of the entries were short, and in the beginning, most of them were funny-ish (the first one read, in its entirety, "Guys, I'm telling you: instead of cutting off a chunk of butter from the end of the stick and tearing up your toast trying to spread it, just skim a thin layer from the top of the stick, lay it on the toast, and let it melt." I have never gotten such a universally positive response to anything I've written, ever). Digital writing without a particular readership eased virtually all the angst I felt about writing, because there was no pressure for it to be special or to perform as Real Writing, and it was highly likely that no one but a couple people who already loved me were reading it. I never felt compelled to compare it to what anyone else was writing. There was no such thing as a shitty first draft because I never thought of it as a draft, period--shitty or otherwise. Regardless of my ambivalence toward social media now, it was a system that at one time produced a result that contributed to my wellbeing and overall happiness.

Social media is not the place for what I need to write these days, most of which is not funny and does need extensive editing at some point. But I've been handling myself more gently in this Slightly More Real Writing phase than I'm prone to do, partly because I can remember so clearly the feeling of that earlier writing, when I didn't think of it as shitty. I'm being a little less judgmental of my sentences and notes, careful to share them with people who understand that anything just-born isn't yet in a position to benefit from a deep critique, people who would never put a baby on a John Deere and tell it to get out there and mow the lawn, here's first gear, this is second, keep the lines straight. This is hard enough already; developing one's voice is painful when one's voice is not Joan Didion's and clearly never will be. But I don't want to ridicule my voice for not being more like someone else's anymore. That road leads exactly nowhere. So I step in to remind myself that comparison is the Thief of Joy and also the Asshole of the Party, relentlessly mocking you and all your guests until they leave. I want to enjoy the party, the awkward guests, the baby, the kittens, all the metaphors. I know the outcome produced by a system of unrelenting scrutiny, of being informed at all times of one's flaws and imperfections. You're not going to believe me when I tell you this, but guess what. The outcome was not perfection, and no party.

The urge to tear something down before you've even begun building is strong. I think there's a hot current of masochism in perfectionism that makes calling ourselves and our work "shitty" secretly satisfying. It doesn't feel good, exactly, but it somehow feels right. Maybe it satisfies some animal instinct to attack any tender, exposed flank, even when it’s our own. That's not an urge I want to feed anymore. Writing a rough draft is, unavoidably, an act of self-exposure. If exposure feels uncomfortable or embarrassing, writing a first draft is going to feel uncomfortable or embarrassing. That discomfort, though, isn’t about the shittiness of the draft, it’s about the shittiness of my expectations.

I can't think of my pages as Shitty First Drafts because calling them names doesn't help either of us. It isn't the behavior of someone to be trusted with small creatures. If I went to the middle of nowhere, Texas, for 10 days and had the energy to write extensively during every one of them while consuming nothing but water and then kept it up as a daily practice without any prompting or audience when I returned, then I am some sort of writer. A person for whom writing is necessary. Craft is separate and essential and good; it doesn't mean that what came before is lesser-than, any more than who you are at birth is somehow lesser than who you are at 40.

I had a dream in my teens, one of those long, winding epics that I remember only because I wrote it down when I woke from it in the middle of the night. In the beginning of the dream, I followed a baby squirrel through a labyrinthine, abandoned mansion to a locked door that said "DO NOT ENTER." Underneath that, in tiny type, it said "Except for Sometimes." The baby squirrel turned and winked at me over its shoulder and slid the bolt open. Adventures ensued. This baby squirrel was opening doors for me. It had powers. The very least I can do for a squirrel like that, or any other baby who gets me access to another world, is to not call it names. Never disrespect a winking baby squirrel is a pretty good rule of thumb, I think.

I don't have actual children, so it's possible everything I've said here about babies is incorrect and I don't have license to use that metaphor with any authority. But, in all seriousness, these animal metaphors are the ones that ring most true for me, for the rough draft process. Whatever literal or metaphorical lives I do tend, I'd like to be a decent friend and a good steward to them, pages of writing not excepted. If I don't have rights to the human baby metaphor, fair enough. Here's one I do: I'm sitting at a picnic table in a field at the edge of the woods, in the middle of nowhere. There's a deer I'm trying to coax out of the trees and over to my table. Every day it comes a little closer. I have to sit there; I have to be right there where it can see me and get used to me. When it takes its first tentative steps beyond the treeline, I can't jump up and run at it with my arms stretched wide, crying "Deer! I love you! WE ARE GOING TO BE BEST FRIENDS!" and expect it to respond in kind. But you know what else doesn't work? Rising to my feet at the table and yelling "Hey shithead! Get over here!"