First drafts are my favorite drafts. I love the immersion in the story and the constant internal pressure to write and write until it is all out. When I’m writing a first draft I don’t screw off much on social media, don’t return emails promptly, and often drive by my exits on the expressway without noticing.
During my first draft, I’m definitely a fly by the seat of my pants type writer. I don’t know what I want to say until I start typing. It is only after I have written 75% of it that I start outlining. At the same time, though, I’m not a big believer in the “garbage draft” or the “spew it out and don’t look back until the first draft is finished” theory. I write a few pages, re-read them, edit them, look up a word that I used to know but have forgotten, futz and futz until my chapter is as close to exactly what I want to say as possible, then I move on. When I try to go for the free write/just get it down style of drafting, I don’t get to fully explore the tangents that often become necessary for world building.
World building is just as important in memoir as fiction—the average reader has no idea what my elementary school looks like, how much I paid for a candy bar, or what jeans were cool in my suburb. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it can be written skimpily. The characters and setting must be just as vibrant on the page as in a novel.
I use Zillow and google maps to look up old houses and neighborhoods. I’m constantly double-checking my own memories with statistical data and old newspaper accounts. Merriam-Webster has a wonder feature called Time Traveler that lists the words that first came into existence in any given year, which is a cool way to get back into the feeling of the past.
For this reason, NaNoWriMo doesn’t work for me. I need to linger. Memories are like silly putty, first they must be kneaded to soften them enough to make them malleable, then they must be smoothed firmly so the picture transfers. I might spend all day on one chapter, trying to find the story beneath the obvious one. I tend to walk in circles in my living room repeating out loud, “what exactly am I trying to say here?” while my cat looks on in derision. If you don’t have a cat to keep your ego in check, you might consider getting one.
I love watching my page count rise. As a writer, we don’t get a lot of positive reinforcement along the way, and that little gray-on-gray page- and word-counter in the lower left corner of my screen gives me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. I did something! I created a mountain of words! An avalanche of words! Of course, editing will decimate that lovely large page count as I ruthlessly cut, but in the first draft, it’s just one page after another of progress. Look: I did something today.
I do realize that I’m waxing nostalgic for the first draft because I’m in the third complete revision of my second memoir and am so sick of it I had to walk away for a bit. My other work in progress—a novel—is in the irritating second draft stage where I have recently thrown out half of the book and had to start over.
But to be fair, I don’t love everything about first drafts. In writing Girlish I had to put myself back in the place of childhood despair, shame, and grief in order to write the story properly. I could only write certain sections of Girlish when my kids were out of town and I could give in completely to that place of anguish so it could be fully realized on the page. I didn’t talk to a lot of people, certainly not to family members I was writing about. On some days, the writing of the book left me ravaged, yet I couldn’t stop writing. The only way to make sense of my pain was to write my way out of it.
Those were the worst moments of the first draft—when I was back in the place of pain and waiting for the discovery phase to kick in, with no clear idea of how I was going to adequately do the story justice. But when it was done, when I wrote to the end and I finally knew that yes, this is what I meant to say and I’ve said all of it—that moment was pure exhilaration. Of course, the next day, when I reread it, I decided it was all crap and fell into an altogether different sort of despair, one based in anxiety and self-doubt. But that one moment, after the typing of the final sentence of the first draft…it was perfection.
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