“Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist”—Jane Smiley
Thank you, Jane Smiley. What an awesome way to look at a first draft.
I met Jane Smiley at the 2014 Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference when I arrived for the opening banquet late and sat at her dinner table. She is as gratuitous, generous and funny as she is prolific. Later during her keynote address she read from her novel, Some Luck. I couldn’t help cringe for her at the snarky comments one writer in the audience made about his expectations from a Pulitzer-winning writer.
Ms. Smiley taught me about grace under pressure that evening. I also learned that bullies come in all professions at all stages of life. So, the quote above stood out as an opportunity to learn another bittersweet fact of writing life from a master about perceptions on the first draft.
Back when I first started writing, meaning when I had zero knowledge of writing craft, I thought that the first draft was the novel. I thought that nothing else was necessary. Once written, the writer sent this work of art to an agent or editor for their input and minor tweaks. This misunderstanding led me to believe that the first draft must be as perfect as you can get it. A descent into the paralysis by perfectionism ensued.
As with most misconceptions, time exposes ignorance. Now, admittedly still in the early stages of writing, I have learned to embrace outlining and the wild and prickly imperfection of the first draft.
The range of 1st draft concepts:
1. the first drafts must be perfect
2. the first draft must receive agreement from your critique group
3. the first draft must be written before you can pitch
4. the first draft is produced in a rain of inspired words
5. the first draft is required before the final story can take shape
6. the first draft is a success
One of my teachers in UCLA Writers Program, Speculative fiction author, Alyx Dellamonica, has a picture on her blog of Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark speaking with his hand outstretched with a neat pincer grasp. The caption reads “One simply does not write the perfect first draft.” See it here. I thought it meant don’t worry about your first draft. I’ve come to realize it’s far more liberating than that.
As I took on the 2015 National Novel Writing Month challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, I no longer feel the pressure to produce 1667 perfect words daily. Rather I strive to produce 1667 relevant words each day. My liberation in replacing the need for perfection with the goal of relevance. As a result, my daily word count and writing rate increased. With that, anxiety and writing blockage diminished, and my comfort, confidence, and creativity soared. All that from a simple shift in thinking.
The power of perception is the power to lift the human imagination and with it the human condition. Now that’s epic. Epic and in right in line with my purposes for writing this blog.
For if my own Evolved Perspective is that there is beauty, mystery, and synchronicity in the practice of medicine, science and other left brain dominance ventures, the same can be said of writing.
The harsh and demanding left brain drive for perfection leads to restriction and limited production. I liken this to grasping a pen so hard that your hand barely moves. As loosening one’s grip frees the hand for greater range of motion, seeing the first draft as merely one step in the process removes tethers from your creativity and lets it fly.
In his Nanowrimo pep talk writer Gene Luen Yang says,”When you write a novel, you’re not just working on the novel itself. You’re also working on the novel-building factory: your life. You have to create a life that is conducive to writing.”
I have heard that one of the beautiful things about Nanowrimo is that you can learn what your own process is.
Nanowrimo 2015 started with several things that Nanowrimo 2012 and 2013 did not. These are:
-a rough outline
-A bevy of music as soundtrack to my writing
-confidence that I can produce 50,000 words in 30 days
-a welcoming of affirming and soul-sustaining accouterments
-a comfort in my support systems (personal, nano-specific and writing in general)
-my commitment to add movement, exercise and time out in nature to the mix
-blogging my experience as a way to discover my writing process
-the expectation that this first draft is only the beginning of my journey with the story and its characters
Instead of squeezing out word by painstaking word, juggling character motivation, plot, and theme, I step back a little and look at my process. Did that way of outlining work? What about that Scrivener template vs. the other? Index cards? Freewriting? Is writing on an iPAD worth the trouble? At crunch time what gets me through a rough patch?
As I begin the second week of 2015 Nano with 15,000+ words written, I’m feeling pretty good about that progress, the remaining month’s progress and my hope for the story that will eventually emerge from it all.
So thank you, Jane Smiley. Not only was it a pleasure to meet you at SBWC and watch you navigate an envious bully, but it was a revelation to read your words of encouragement. It is uplifting to hear someone with so many relevant words under her belt to say, in essence, every draft as a victory.
My fellow WriMos, please DO celebrate yours