First drafts—like life—are messy, overly complicated, contain plot holes and unfinished character arcs. There are moments of greatness, but they tend to be squashed between long expositions and mundane details. The writer, in life and writing, must explore the entire story—every tangent and detour—to tease out the real heart of the thing. We’ve got to try it all on, see what fits. Figure out what is working and what isn’t. Then ask, “Why?”
I can’t speak for all writers, but for me, once the initial excitement of a new story wears off and I get down to the business of writing the thing for real, I find myself on an out-of-control pendulum. I feel crazy, like an adolescent—my mood swings ranging from “I love it! It’s the best thing ever!” to “No one gets me. I should give up.”
On the first uptick I imagine this story is the most meaningful and purposeful of anything I’ve ever written. It’s going to change lives. Inspire others as much as it does me. It’s going to be amazing!
Then whoosh! The fall. The story’s inevitable flaws are revealed and I turn on my masterpiece. Suddenly I hate it. I hate everything about it. Stupid characters. Stupid setting. Stupid plot. Terribly awful writing (all those poor overworked adverbs!) I stomp my foot, huff and swear under my breath. The urge to give up is overwhelming. And maybe I do … for a time. But eventually I get over myself, sit down and start writing my “shitty first draft” as Anne Lamott so aptly refers to it. (I was particularly inspired by Dr. Brené Brown‘s expansion on this idea in “Rising Strong.” )
I have great days and not so great days. I try to follow Hemingway’s advice, gleaning a little more from each day’s adventure, following each thread, plot point and character as I write.
It’s a lot like moving to a new country. Exciting and terrifying to start, then little by little, day by day, it becomes less foreign. I feel like less of an outsider and more like I belong. Sure, I’ll make plenty more mistakes, get lost and confused, but the fear isn’t as intense.
By the time I get to the final editing stage, I catch a glimmer of that initial excitement again. When I hold it up to the light at just the right angle, my story sparkles. I feel a flutter of exhilaration that it might be readable. I feel … what is that unfamiliar feeling? Satisfaction! I have been genuinely productive. And I’m, dare I say it, proud of myself? Yes, I dare!
And then I read a line in a piece of literature that is so perfect it makes me want to give up for good.
We wish life resembled a final draft: polished, witty, sharp, consistent. But in life the loose threads aren’t tied up neatly. Explanations aren’t always given. We give it our all, and sometimes we still fail. We don’t always learn our lessons or make a full character arc.
All we can do is move forward. Construct ourselves sentence by sentence. Put one word in front of the next, hoping that we discover a universal truth. That we illuminate a point of darkness for another lost soul. And if we’re really lucky, we may find others who think we show a lot of promise. Who see the beauty in our faults as much as our potential.
In writing, as in life, we have to accept and even love our shitty first drafts. They are as much a part of us as the polished final drafts, and their messes and mistakes make us who we are. The best life isn’t the one with the amazing highlight reel, but the one that’s too long, sometimes out of focus and jagged around the edges. Because the fullness of life is experienced by letting go of the idea of a perfect final draft, and instead trusting in the beautiful chaos of the universe. Of saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I may look stupid doing it, but I’m doing it anyway. It’s going to be amazing!”
(all photos copyright Sharisse Coulter)