Look, dude, I already know: the topic of bad first drafts has been blogged to death more than mac & cheese recipes. But not like this.
Type the phrase “bad first drafts” into Google, AskJeeves, or AltaVista and here’s what you’ll find:
Trillions of blog posts, all adorned with stock photos of crumpled pieces of paper, images of writers staring frustrated at their computer screens, and condescending listicles outlining the 7 reasons you should write bad first drafts (#3 will shock you!).
Oh, and let’s not forget the famous Hemingway quote that he almost certainly never said — better throw that fucker in for good measure:
“The first draft of anything is shit.”
— Some Self-Obsessed Asshole on Pinterest
As much as I joke, there’s actually some solid insight about first drafts out there. But most of the blogs say basically the same things:
You should write bad first drafts because:
- Most first drafts of books are bad anyway.
- Editing a bad first draft is easier than editing a blank page.
It’s all good, accurate information, but good information doesn’t lead to behavioral change.
Nobody addresses the lurking anxiety underlying our reluctance to write a bad first draft (or a first draft of any kind):
A bad first draft challenges your identity as a writer.
Whether consciously or not, we conflate the quality of our writing with our quality as a writer — “I wrote something good, therefore I am a good writer.” Or, in the case of most first drafts, “I wrote something bad, therefore I am a bad writer.”
Then, because being a writer is so inextricably tied to our identity, we interpret our quality as a writer as a reflection of our value as a human being.
“I wrote something bad, therefore I am a bad person.”
What’s more disturbing is that our thoughts about our so-called “bad” writing don’t normally come to us so directly. They’re sneakier than that. These nasty thoughts reveal themselves concealed in self-deprecating, but seemingly benign, packages:
“This draft is unsalvageable.”
“Nobody’s gonna read this.”
“I wonder if that burger joint downtown is hiring, because I’m fucked with this writing thing.”
Those anxieties are enough to put some talented writers completely out of commission for years, just because they’d prefer to keep their precious identity as a writer protected somewhere deep in their psyche rather than put anything into the world that might challenge that identity.
(I suspect this is what happened with Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer who worked at the magazine for decades without publishing anything.)
So yeah, man, you can see why shaking you by the lapel, smacking you across the face, and screaming “Write a bad first draft!” isn’t gonna do shit to get you out of the hole that many people refer to as writer’s block.
So what should we do instead? Well, I have one idea: let’s try to address our apprehension to write bad first drafts through the lens of psychotherapy, where instead of obsessing over poorly-formulated actionable steps to tackle complex emotional problems, we bring everything to the surface, talk about it, sit with it, and go from there.
If you’re down with that, let’s start with the paradoxical mistake that the writers of these bad first draft blogs (and most writers in general) make:
Despite our identity being so intertwined with our writerhood, we still operate as though there’s an artificial separation between writer and self.
Castles in the Sky
The best writer I know hasn’t written anything new in three years.
She’s still tinkering with a memoir that was more than ready to publish in college, but she still needs to “make some final edits” before it’s ready to go into the world.
Bullshit. I read her manuscript just a few months ago. Any improvements she made since college were marginal at best.
“You’re ready to start querying,” I told her. “I’m happy to help if you want.”
“I don’t know. I think it needs another edit.”
“It 100% does not.”
Then she deflected by telling me about a new novel idea she had. As she told me the synopsis for the story, I was enthralled. It had everything: a cult, assassinations, drug smuggling, and affairs, all in the unlikely setting of a small mountain village.
“That sounds amazing,” I said. “When are you gonna start writing it?”
“Well, yeah, the story is all there, but I still need to figure out what I’m saying with it.”
She meant what she’d be saying philosophically with the story. I didn’t know if I wanted to hug her like a wounded puppy or shake her so hard I gave her post-infancy shaken baby syndrome.
She’s depriving me, one of her biggest fans, of the pleasure of reading her work.
With her books, she’d already built them into beautiful castles in the sky. Taking them down and putting them on paper and into the world would inevitably force them to come short of perfection.
In other words, she won’t put out a bad first draft of her novel or publish her memoir because the image in her head is so perfect that crystallizing them in the world would challenge her identity — no matter how many drafts she makes, and how many years she edits, the results will be worse than her perfect vision.
It doesn’t help that writing is all she has. She doesn’t talk to her family. Since college, she’s cycled through a series of disastrous relationships, and she works odd jobs in the podcasting world to stay afloat. But she has no greater ambitions as an audio producer or anything of the sort.
Everything she does is in the service of her writing dreams.
But, like I said, she hasn’t written anything new in 3 years.
Because writing is all she has, her perception of herself as a writer has split off from the rest of her personality and has become yet another castle in the sky, raising the stakes of writing anything (let alone a bad first draft) so high that it might risk the castle of her identity to come crashing down on top of her.
Then what would she have left?
She lives her life in a vacuum. Most people she works with don’t even know she’s a writer — she keeps that biggest, most important castle hidden from them.
I have no doubt that if she gave it another 6 months or a year, she could actually improve her memoir and get to work on her novel idea. But by the time she does that, she will be a completely different person and writer. What she wrote in college may no longer be true to her as an artist, and therefore never be a good enough castle for her to put into the world.
Because of the separation between her daily life (what people see of her) and her life as a writer (what she sees of herself), she experiences a constant battle between her desires and her actions. She wants to be a writer, but she hasn’t written in 3 years.
Telling her to “just write a bad first draft of your novel” won’t work. It’s a dull, blunt-forced solution to a deeply-cutting existential problem.
It’s not enough to address the scary (and perfectly valid) identity crisis she’d experience from writing a bad first draft at this point in her life.
What she needs is a bad first draft of herself.
Emotional Artistry and its Impact on Writing
The more we let the other aspects of our lives — like romantic relationships, family, friendships, health, and living situation — turn to shit, the more our writing defines us.
We rationalize our self-destructive ways by saying that our personal problems are somehow prerequisites to being a good writer.
“Yeah, every relationship I’ve had has been fucked-up and emotionally manipulative, but that’ll make good material for my writing.”
“I don’t get to the gym every day, but name me one famous writer who was a meathead?”
“I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a writer.”
“My apartment is a disgusting pigsty #writerlife.”
The more our writing defines us in this excuse-riddled “everything else can go to shit as long as I have my writing” way, the less likely we are put out bad first drafts. Why? For the same reasons my writer friend doesn’t write anymore: because the stakes for our writing become too high.
Therefore, I believe the best way to overcome our apprehension to create bad first drafts on the page is to put more attention on creating a bad first draft of ourselves.
Enter Dr. Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist.
All of my writer friends hate this dude, and for good reasons: his views on relationships and marriage can be prohibitively traditional, his pessimism can be downright gloomy, and I sometimes wonder if he’s an egomaniac.
Most importantly, though, I think my writer friends hate him because we are the exact people who need his messages.
He talks about seemingly simple things, like cleaning your bedroom as a good first step to cleaning up your life, taking responsibility for your actions, and stepping forward into the unknown despite your uncertainties and shortfalls.
In other words, he argues at great length for creating a bad first draft of yourself.
But that’s all just a little too low-brow and conservative for a group of enlightened liberals like us writers…right?
What I’ve found with the best, most artistically gifted writers I’ve met is that we are messes in the ways I described above, and we (at times) look at our writing as something separate from the messes of our lives.
Then as a result, our writing becomes mutated from the unsustainable burden of carrying the weight of our salvation.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the most prolific times in my life have been the result of needing to write myself out of a shitty situation:
- I was stuck living in my parents’ retirement community after college, and I wrote a story that got me into grad school.
- I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, and I wrote my first memoir.
- I was homeless one summer, and I wrote my second memoir.
They were all times when my life was in relative shambles around me, but I found myself writing anyway. I can look back at my creations from those times and feel pride for the rest of my life. And yet…
I used the motivation from those emotionally toxic environments to create some amazing art, but I never stepped back and asked myself why I was in those shitty situations in the first place.
What unique set of circumstances — many of which were under my control — had led me to living with my parents, being homeless, or entering toxic romantic relationships?
Instead of grappling with that question, I deftly used my writing as an avenue through which I could hide from my problems.
This tricked me into thinking that emotional turmoil was somehow a prerequisite to artistic mastery.
The story in my mind goes:
“True art is the result of transforming pain into beauty.”
Through that lens, I couldn’t be an artist without dysfunction in my life. Dysfunctional times are ripe with writing fodder, but is living in dysfunction necessary to be a writer?
Trust me, dude — a standard human experience will provide you with enough emotional drama to serve as writing fodder for centuries. No need to pile on unnecessarily.
What if instead of excusing the messes in my life as the necessary byproducts of being a writer, I looked at my emotional problems as a form of artistry — a medium I was ill-practiced in, which just so happened to be in the bad first draft stage? And instead of accepting my dysfunction as-is, I set out to improve the sloppy emotional artistry that led me to the many shitty situations in my life?
What might happen to my writing then?
Give Your Gift and Die
You are going to die one day. Maybe that day is today, maybe it’s in 50 years — you can’t know for sure. But it’s coming.
In a moment as real and as lucid as this one, you will breathe in for the last time, exhale, and your consciousness will either flicker out forever or it’ll travel to wherever else that shit might disappear to.
In the meantime, will you let your actions color your final moment with regret, knowing that your best writing sits dormant inside you somewhere, waiting for just the right moment to be transformed from a dream-like castle of perfection in your imagination into an imperfect facsimile in reality? Or will you press on, despite your uncertainty?
More importantly, will you leave the best version of yourself waiting as unlocked potential aching to venture forth?
As best you can, continue to stumble forward with bad first drafts in all parts of your life. Not necessarily because you identify as a writer, but because you identify as a person who constantly grows. And growth is not possible without bad first drafts.
Bad first drafts are signals to yourself — they are markers saying, “You are entering into the unknown. You are learning. You are taking a risk, and it might change you for the better, or it might leave you homeless and alone.”
Once you have something imperfectly manifested in the world you can grapple with it, cringe at it, and make it the best gift you possibly can at this point in your life.
The stakes are too high not to.
Greg Larson is the owner of Apollo Media and a bestsellling ghostwriter, editor, and author from Austin, Texas.