There is a horrible myth, one that has long persisted, that writing is a mystical occurrence, that the writer is visited by the beautiful muse and merely takes a sort of spiritual dictation. The implication is that if you are not putting forth best sellers in a meditative state, if you are actually struggling to get the right words on the page, you are not a “real” writer. Or maybe you’re a real writer, but you’re not a good one.
This idea causes a lot of unnecessary grief and consternation. At keyboards from coast to coast, writers hover over the delete button, ready to destroy hours of work because their first draft did not appear on the page a picture of perfection. In the worst cases, this leads to an inability to ever get through a full draft.
For all but the rarest of writers, unfortunately, writing is a long process that includes several “do-overs” before we get even close to our vision. Most of us have to write horribly until, on a third or fourth or even fifth re-reading, we see a glimmer of hope in a paragraph that we can dig out and polish into something half-way intelligible, let alone brilliant. Then we have to dig again for the next gem.
Anne Lamott, in her well-known book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, feels our pain. She says, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. . . . Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”
Only later does Lamott worry about editing and smoothing her writing into something she will show the world. The other big news is this: just because you’ve finished something that turned out well once doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easier the next time you sit down to write. You just have to keep sitting down, writing and re-writing, until you recognize the thing you were trying to say in the first place. Every. Single. Time.
Every great published book you have ever read went through several drafts. Then it reached an editor who put in her two cents on another draft or two. Be patient with yourself. Be kind. Let the wild, crazy ideas come to the page without judgment, at least for one draft. There is plenty of time to edit and edit. There’s even time to start again from scratch.
Just keep writing.