It is one of the minor tragedies of my life, perhaps a major tragedy in my writing life, that no one ever told me first drafts are supposed to suck until I was thirty-eight years old. Yup. Thirty-eight.
Now, this is most likely because I never really knew any writers, and I rarely took any actual writing classes. While most writers would probably agree that having an MFA, or even taking a few undergraduate courses in creative writing, aren’t necessary to enjoy a career as an author, that one little tip about drafting sure would have come in handy.
I did know one writer for a little while, but he was a poet. They don’t talk a whole lot about getting through first drafts, probably because poems are so short.
So I used to find writing a first draft excruciating. It was long and tedious. It felt like I stopped in the middle of every sentence, labored over every other word. I was always interrupting myself to look up possibilities in my thesaurus, instead of just jotting down any old thing and fixing it later. The way I wrote was like mincing over the sidewalk, trying to avoid every crack. I couldn’t build any momentum, couldn’t run—I could barely even walk. Writing this way, I would never achieve that feeling called “flow,” when everything is suddenly magic and words are just tearing through you and it’s wonderful because you don’t have to think about how short they might fall of your vision until much later. When you are lost in your writing and time stops altogether, yet when you look up, somehow an hour has passed.
My mantra was that thing Dorothy Parker* once said about how she hated writing, but loved having written. That was me. I now believe that she and I probably suffered from the same drafting problems, and she probably just needed someone to tell her about first drafts sucking, too.
Maybe this was why I tended to write short stories, nothing longer. I mean, some of my short stories ran as long as twenty or thirty pages, but that was about it. And when I sat down to try my hand at a book, a novel for middle-graders, I struggled and agonized my way through the whole thing. And that was why I did it—writing itself was a kind of masochistic torture, and I wanted to see if I could really write something that long, if I had the endurance. Does it feel really good to run a marathon? ’Cause I’m guessing it doesn’t. I’m guessing it hurts, but finishing one is a great source of pride for those who can do it, and a testament to the perseverance of one’s body and will. So my first book (which was no good, by the way), was my marathon—I just wanted to see if I could do it. I finished it, edited it once, and stuck it in the proverbial drawer.
When I started writing The Dream Peddler, I still hadn’t learned a different way to write. Luckily for me, I hadn’t gotten very far with it when I joined the Just Write Group in Collegeville, PA, and it was there that someone finally let me in on this little secret: first drafts are supposed to stink. Can’t think of a word? Make a note and come back to it. This sentence is garbled to the point where it’s almost unintelligible? Leave yourself a nice note about what a moron you are, and come back to it later. As soon as I tried this, dropping notes to myself as I went along, stringing three or four word possibilities as they occurred to me and moving on, my whole world changed. Suddenly, I LOVED writing. I loved the actual process of writing, not only the part after, when I had written. Instead of pounding my sore feet against a blacktop, I was gliding, as if I had traded sneakers for ice skates, or even better—wings.
And that’s how I went from thinking first drafts were torture to really loving them. It’s still not easy. I write myself into corners, sometimes hate what I write even as it’s coming out of me, and I leave so many of those adorable little notes to myself that it’s a wonder I have the heart to go back in and edit at all. But something happened when I stopped nitpicking every word and let myself go. When I stopped taking myself out of the story all the time, focusing on every small choice and detail, I was finally able to really be immersed in my story, to live it while I was writing it. Instead of looking at the book from the outside, lost in all the trappings of the craft, I get to be on the inside, where the heart of the story is beating. Writing, it’s the best place to be.
*in the interest of full disclosure, I did a little digging and it is quite possible that Parker was not the first to say this. Also possible she didn’t say it at all, although it is widely attributed to her (I mean, Goodreads says so, folks), and she’s definitely the coolest person associated with it. So.