“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird.
Today is one of those days when writing the novel is an effort. I woke up this morning and thought, ‘Why am I writing this? What’s the point of it? Is this even something worth reading? And when the hell are you going to let your characters get the sticks out of their butts and actually start doing something?’
Today I felt that writing in a novel while I felt such disdain for it might poison it. So instead, I re-read Anne Lamott’s fantastic chapter in ‘Bird by Bird’ about shitty first drafts and suddenly felt like everything was going to be ok again. They way she described writing when she used to be a food critic was exactly the process I went through in the last month about an article I got to write about what it’s like to live on a food stamp budget. I spent the last few weeks gathering information and interviewing different sources. Last week I wrote everything down, as in every. single. detail. The beginning was too long, the statistics listed were slightly snore-worthy, the descriptions were overdrawn. I came up with 1400 words of too much stuff, and had to somehow whittle it down to 800 words.
Problem is, I had a hard time letting go of any of it.
So I told myself I could make a second attempt at it – hold onto the first copy and then post that one online, and make a shorter second copy for the one that would go in print. This time, my red pen was flying. I lost the first paragraph, cut out some of the statistics, and then deleted almost 2/3 of what I quoted from each person. I called my final source on the piece and was able to wrap up the article neatly and smoothly.
And then I accidentally saved over my first shitty, wonderful, horrible, too long piece that I promised I could keep.
It was actually a blessing in disguise, to be honest. The second article is much shorter and skips so much of what people told me on this subject. But it’s readable and won’t lose the reader before the end. I probably read it over at least a dozen times, finding something to tweak every single read through. And when I thought it was actually pretty good (and truthfully was so sick of it I no longer cared what someone ate on a tight budget), I held my breath and submitted it.
I then checked my email every 5 minutes from my editor to see just how much she hated it and wanted me to retype it, or even just pack my things up quietly and leave the building. She hasn’t emailed me yet, but I expect it at any moment.
At any rate, I am allowing me to have a shitty first draft of this novel. I am allowing my characters to feel too sorry for themselves in their predicaments. I am allowing myself to give too much backstory and not enough detail about their appearance. I am ignoring my 5 line sentences and awkward paragraph breaks and the fact that I use the word “said” too many times after a sentence. I’m just going to write it out and let it be shitty, abandoning each word as soon as its on the page, allowing the story to be a muddy mess of a first draft. And then, just before utter chaos and pandemonium break out from too much freedom and open space, I will sweep in and mold it into something that might be actually wonderful.