Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Do "shitty first drafts" have to feel so shitty?

For the past few semesters, I've been assigning Anne Lamott's much-anthologized excerpt, "Shitty First Drafts", from her book on writing, Bird by Bird (1995). The first time I asked students to read and discuss it, one student (Doug), commented that he enjoyed it because it made him feel like he was "not alone" in having to fight off so much self-doubt and panic every time he was asked to produce any substantial amount of writing. Even professional writers feel this way, Lamott argues, especially early in the writing process, when our half-formed ideas look so pathetic to our inner-critic.

I admire how Lamott normalizes the "shittyness" (or is it "shittiness"?) of a first draft--emphasizing how it takes multiple drafts, even for experienced writers, to produce their best work. She urges us to give ourselves permission to write imperfectly, even badly--that this is part of the process, part of the normal work of getting started--and if we trust in this process, eventually we'll be able to transform those first initial scribbles into something worthwhile, maybe even something artful.

Yet I wonder if she does too good a job of normalizing the anxiety that so often accompanies this painstaking process. Do we have to be filled with panic and dread each time we start from scratch? I'd hate for my students to read this and think, "Writing will always be painful, even if I get good at it--even if I get so good that I can write a book about it." Is there a way to do this, so that we don't feel "despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron" each and every time?

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