“If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.” ~ John McPhee
I’ve had a terrible time returning to my writing lately, pushing on through what is possibly the shittiest first draft of all time. The work came to a complete halt after a month of intensive writing last November in which I managed to write 30,000 words (the good part) but also discovered some pretty unsavory truths in the process. I realized that a lot of what I’d written would need to be deleted entirely or at least seriously rewritten, the arc of the story was no longer what I thought it should be, and a recurring theme kept insisting on being told. I was not comfortable with any of it. The whole memoir imploded after that; it was all too much. Marge Piercy describes this aspect of the writing as “eating bricks for breakfast.”
Despite all of the whining, recently a couple of very interesting and encouraging things have happened to me.
I stumbled across a guest post by Richard Gilbert over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, a writing blog I enjoy reading. Gilbert was blogging about his soon to be published memoir, Shepherd: A Memoir (due out in the spring, 2014). This led me to his blog and a piece he wrote about John McPhee and writer’s block. He started the post writing about the name of his blog, Narrative. It is now often confused with the lit magazine of the same name. He wanted to change it and thought 4th Draft would be a good title. When he googled it, he ran into John McPhee’s latest essay on writing in The New Yorker, Draft No. 4: Replacing the Words in Boxes.
Gilbert went on to talk about things he learned along the way while writing what he thought would be a year-long writing project. Seven years, many revisions, and four drafts later, he now has what he considers a worthwhile effort. He is remarkably humble about the process.
I found comfort hearing about a writer encountering the same issues I’ve had while writing my own work-in-progress. He, too, found his story was not about what he thought when he first started writing it but, instead, found far deeper and richer themes. It was not until the second draft that he began to be able to say, Yes, this is what it is about. I wrote to him and thanked him for the post, saying how much it had meant to me. He wrote back, saying it pleased him that I found some of it helpful. He also said what my comments told him is that I am deeply immersed in my own work, and, like a magnet, attracted to what I need.
I got hold of a copy of the McPhee’s New Yorker essay and read it. I found such solace listening to a great writer talk about the agony of writing the first draft. He says he hates everything about it. The writing stinks, he feels worthless and wonders why he ever chose a writing profession, his ideas are stuck, and getting it onto the page is agony. In a letter to his daughter he describes the first draft,
“The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that you have achieved a sort of nucleus.”
Dear God, do I ever know how that feels. He goes on to talk about the second, third, and fourth drafts, which sound much more encouraging. It even sounds like fun by the third draft.
But that shitty first draft is a must.
Coincidentally, I was in the states recently helping my 94-year-old mother move from her home of twenty plus years to a very nice assisted living facility. (So nice in fact I said to a friend, If this is what assisted living looks like, move me in!) During the sorting and packing process we came across many things: original newspapers announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor, a family Bible, print date 1815, and other things not quite so interesting.
In the give-or-throw-away pile was a small leather case with a tiny tooled flower on the cover. I undid the miniature c-clasp, still intact, and opened the rectangular case, one side padded in claret red velvet and the other with a gold picture frame of something called a Daguerreotype, a vintage direct camera image on a silvered copper plate. The image is oxidized now, nothing remaining but a gold rim framing a blurred area. My mother did not want it, and, unsure why, I put it in my luggage.
When I got home and found the little picture frame, I thought to myself, This is silly. Mum is right, I always save these sentimental things. It is of no use, or value, and more practically, what am I going to do with this thing anyway? But I put it on my writing desk next to a photograph I keep of my parents taken around their 70th wedding anniversary. A few days ago I looked at the little frame and it hit me, the hand-to-forehead jolt.
I remembered why I saved it or at least some part of me remembered.
Years ago, when I first thought seriously about writing, I read Anne Lamott’s now famous book, Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1994). In it she wrote about a one-inch picture frame she keeps on her desk, because, she says,
“It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car–just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.”
I wanted a one-inch picture frame of my own after I read that, and I looked and looked but never found one. How serendipitous that I should find one now, now when I finally understand what she was writing about, how getting that first draft onto the page takes focusing, not on the whole, but simply on an individual scene, one description, or one conversation, just fling it onto the page like mud against a wall, bird by bird, so I can see what I have for the next draft.
I like the little frame because it came from my father’s family, but, more than that, I love that it has a blurred image of possibilities… something like the first draft of a book.
14 thoughts on “Gilbert, McPhee, Lamott, and the Shitty First Draft”
Excellent post, Sarah. Indeed, that shitty first draft is a must, and the sooner we learn to live with it the happier, less frustrated, and more productive we’ll be. Thanks for the links–all of them, great resources.
Thanks for stopping by, Guilie. Yes, I know this stuff, but sometimes I just need to hear it again, and when it comes from someone like McPhee, well…. it’s God’s own truth then, isn’t it. Onward. 😉
Great links…and a great insight.
Thanks, Helen. Not my usual Costarican subject matter but something just as important to me. Glad you found the links helpful. John McPhee is a wonderful writer. Full stop!
Nice Nice Nice. Just what I needed to read this morning, Sarah.
I am glad you enjoyed it, Karna. I think I need to hear something along these lines about once a week. I hope you are getting some writing done, but I know summers are a busy time at the Converse household. Write a little or write a lot, but write on.
Nice piece, Sarah, and just what I needed to read right now. I haven’t worked on my novel, or my blog, for a month. I have that New Yorker, with the article by McPhee, sitting open on my desk, and I’ve been avoiding reading it, so as not to have to think about my (not) writing.
I wasn’t sure where to go with the novel, but thanks to you, I can just write some small thing, and see how that feels. And I’ll read MePhee’s article too.
I’m so glad you found it helpful, Myra; it was certainly helpful to write. By the way, if you are a subscriber to The New Yorker, McPhee has a series of these essays or at least two that I am aware of. There was another good one on structure in or around January of this year [Structure: Beyond the Picnic-table Crisis].
He may be working on a book. I can only pray. The idea of just splatting mud against a wall is really a breakthrough for me. Doesn’t matter what the hell it looks like but those thoughts have to get on the paper. 😉
Great blog Sarah. I have a theory that the story writes us and we get in the way when we try to control the direction of the process.
Thanks for stopping by, Laurie, and thanks for the shout out on facebook. Yes, I think the “directional mode” is for the second or third draft, definitely not for the first.
Oh! Love love love this! Thank you! I, too, read Draft No. 4… I have a sort of formula about my chapbooks, of which I have printed out four: If I think this one is the worst thing ever, I must be in Day 2 to Day 7 after the printing is finished. (Day 1 = “This is the most fabulous thing ever!”) It helps a lot to know that other people, whose work I admire tremendously, have the same doubts about themselves. And incidentally, I, too, look at the retirement community my parents are now living in, and am tempted by it…
Hi, Elaine, and thanks for leaving a comment. I think Anne Lamott was the first writer I can remember talking about how hard it is to write. Of course, it may be that she was the first writer I *noticed* talking about it. But, like you, I REALLY appreciate them saying how brutal the process is. Those words that float on the page did not come without grinding hours, a lot of sweat, and a fair amount of self-abuse. By the way, I’m using Barbara Abercrombie’s new book, Kicking In The Wall, to get me writing again. The first prompt was to write about the wall, what causes it, and how it feels? As I wrote about an amorphous gray cloud of fear of criticism, I suddenly realized that the same cloud could act a protection for my writing, to keep others (and that same fear) away. I now think of it as my writing mantle. Every little bit helps, and a community of other writers is essential. Write on!
I went to your blog and had a look see. Love your artwork!
Thanks, Sarah! And Anne Lamott’s writing is an encouragement too – of course! Wonderful!