Anne Lamott: First Drafts and Perfectionism

Let’s leave this discussion wide open. What did you love or loathe about Lamott?

Although at times she gets a little “new-agey” for me, I am greatly reassured, in an odd way, by how difficult writing is even for gifted writers and those who make a living doing it.

Someone once said: If you think writing is hard, that’s because it is. Sportswriter Red Smith said: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is open your veins and bleed.”

For some reason, we think writing should come easily. Yet we don’t presume that about other crafts or skills – athletics, carpentry, cooking, dance, music. We often have this mystical view of writing, that it somehow happens magically for good writers. Although the effect of writing can be magical, writing itself isn’t. It is a craft that you can learn and improve upon with practice and guidance – just like any other skill.

Does anybody else use Lamott’s strategy of writing pages of garbage (what she calls “the child’s draft”) because only when you do that will you finally reach the point where you want to start? Clark and Fry advise something similar: “So just type a draft. Get it down, then get it right.” Clark admits to “typing two screenfuls of junk.”

The “garbage strategy” has been remarkably effective for me. I can write graf after graf of dreck and not care at all that it’s dreck – no one will read it except me. And always, at the end of the dreck, I arrive at the nugget of what I’ve been trying to say all along. It is magic!

It works for me because my brain can’t separate writing and thinking. I can’t write without thinking, and I can’t think without writing. This is why I am lousy at chess. My “child’s draft” is my stream of consciousness on paper; I wouldn’t even call it “writing.” But I can’t think about complicated things without writing. Somehow, out of my messy, chaotic, frantic typing, clear, coherent thoughts emerge. And then I can truly begin to “write.”

What did you think of what she had to say, about first drafts or perfectionism or anything else?

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11 responses to “Anne Lamott: First Drafts and Perfectionism

  1. Anne Lamott was on “The Colbert Report” in April. She talks about faith, not writing, but you can get a feel for her personality. I couldn’t get this to play in Firefox, but it worked in Safari.

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/167059/april-29-2008/anne-lamott

  2. I absolutely loved reading Anne Lamott. Not only was she incredibly funny, but she also had great advice and insight into the difficulties of writing. I always thought my main problem was purely procrastination, but after reading these excerpts, I realized it was a lot about fear of imperfection.

    I always dread the beginning of organizing my thoughts and beginning a first draft. This was partially due to my procrastination, but also because I was so afraid of what my first draft would look like. But after reading Lamott’s section on “Shitty First Drafts,” I now know that it doesn’t matter. Like she said, if one of the character wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her…because no one is going to see it. Not only did it make me chuckle, but it also opened my eyes to the fact that I can write anything as my first draft, as long as it is a beginning.

    As a child, I loved to write. I loved writing stories, making books, and creating my own magazines. I had no inhibitions. I truly believed everything that I produced was great work, and not only was I incredibly proud of it, but I had fun doing it, too. Once I reached the level in school where grades really matter (somewhere around 6th grade I’m sure) I lost a part of my passion for writing. I felt the pressure and panic of creating something that I thought had to perfect, rather than just sitting down and doing what I used to love to do so much. Lamott’s excerpts reminded me to have fun with writing again and to not be so worried about creating a first perfect draft.

  3. I’m relieved that even great writers don’t know what they’re doing until they’ve done it. I try to figure it out as I write each sentence. But I’m starting to think I should get my words and ideas down on paper, and make it make sense later.

    Anne Lamott explains how she writes those really shitty, childlike first drafts. This probably sounds weird, but I wish I could do that. Instead I consistently edit myself as I go, and it takes me forever to get through a first draft. I think I try to prove to myself that I know what I’m talking about—without being long, incoherent, and hideous (like Lamott is in her early drafts). I wonder what I’d come up with if I got over it and didn’t think so much as I wrote—if I didn’t worry about being clear and concise. I’m willing to bet my stories would more playful and lively, like Lamott’s.

    (I like Lamott—she’s got a great voice. I WILL try taking her advice sometime… although I didn’t as I wrote this short blog post.)

  4. I really liked these chapters. They seem real in a way most published authors don’t. And she makes writing seem like a job (maybe a chore) instead of this thing we believe you’re born able to do…or not. That’s how I’ve seen writing in the past. It’s so hard, tedious, and confusing, I feel like I’m the worst person to ever attempt to write anything. I’ll spend hours on something and, in the end, still not love it. But give me a few months and I’ll look back on that same piece and think “wow, I really got the flow right that time” or “nice quotes!” It’s not flattery, I promise. It’s me realizing that maybe how my writing looks to me isn’t how it looks to everyone else.

    I think Lamott made some excellent points and I feel much better about the time “wasted” when I write. I don’t know why we seem to expect writing to come naturally (or at least without hours and hours spent on rewriting), but it’s nice to know that an author feels our pain. And painful it is.

  5. As difficult as it is to finds absolutes in this world, I think Lamott spoke an absolute truth with this passage:

    “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

    I can’t move forward without the prefect lead or the prefect angle or if I’m in the perfect mood. And that makes for cramped deadlines (and angry editors). If you can just do away with the preconception that everything must be prefect before you move on it liberates you as a writer so you can move on, get the story written on time. There is a lot you can do to improve copy once it is on the page, but you can’t do anything with a blank sheet of paper.

    As for Lamott’s writing in general, I can honestly say I loved it. I’m so glad I’ve been introduced to her work, and I see myself seeking her out.

  6. From the moment I had the handout passed down to me in class where I read the title of this piece I was already thinking “I might need to take this all with a grain of salt.” I thought that because I wasn’t expecting profanity much less the brutal truth that Lamott speaks of in these chapters. After I got over the initial shock of what she was reading I guess you could say that I had a second wind. I realized that although harsh to some and brutally honest to others, the truth in the writing speaks volumes to me. I need to get my childlike draft out of the way to help with the writing process. At that point, I can rethink, revise, and obviously rewrite.

    For the most part, I tend to write in voices. By that I mean, depending on what I write, that takes on the voice of what I think it should be. For example, my features tend to be a little more loose and read like I would talk in everyday conversation. My hard news stories were more robotic as are pieces where I need to sound professional. There are times when I think I get lucky and write a great version of what I want the first time, but more often than not, it’s poo.

    Finally, the last bit on perfectionism relates well to some of the steps that Clark and Fry talk about. Too often I’ve gotten obsessed with needing to be perfect in any x, y, or z step which ultimately compromises the story in its entirety I think. Learning the “time to come home” aspect of writing is something I’ve worked on, but maybe, just maybe with Lamott, she’ll keep me in solitary confinement or something. Good thing she won’t read about my little dinosaurs, i could only imagine what zinger she’d use on me about those little buggers.

  7. I was floored by Anne Lamott. I felt like a great weight, probably a giant paperweight, was lifted off my shoulders. It was even inspiring to see a quote by a favorite author of mine, Kurt Vonnegut: “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” What a visual.

    Lamott is giving me permission to be a screw-up; something that I thought I learned was “supposed” to be beneath me as a college level writer, especially in the Journalism school. I never thought I was a perfectionist, but now I see the veil over my eyes. I see my perfectionism will RUIN my writing, “blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force.”

    I plan on keeping this document near my computer, maybe even scrawling my favorite quotes on sticky notes for my wall. I was previously unaware of my perfectionism wounds that were cramping my style. I will try this “child’s draft,” hopefully tomorrow or Friday; Anne Lamott will be close at hand.

  8. Molly Rasmussen

    I really enjoyed reading Anne Lamott. I liked the realness and the truth that Lamott portrayed in her writing. It made me realize that I am not the only person or writer out there who is afraid to just get the writing down on paper. I agonize over the lead, every paragraph, the organization, the wording…basically just about everything that you can think of. It is nice to know that professionals in the field have felt or do feel the same way at times.

    I am going to try to take Lamott’s advice and just get whatever I can – or as you call it garbage – down on paper. It is going to be hard for me to just let loose and get it out for fear that it will be horrible, but I guess that is the point of a shitty first draft.

  9. So, while reading the “shitty first draft” section, I couldn’t help but wonder if her first draft for that chapter, was, well, shitty. I wish she could’ve gave us a small sample of one of her first drafts, then it would’ve truly felt real.

    This reading took me back. In high school, there was a guy I knew who wrote a monthly column for our school’s newspaper and everyone knew him as “that hilarious columnist.” His columns usually lacked substance (for instance, one of his greatest hits was a column about orange towels) but it was so hilarious with such a fun play on words that kept readers craving more and more 800-word essays of nothingness. I always admired his wit and his humor. I also wondered how the heck did he come up with those ideas in his writing. It all seemed to come so natural to him as if he just sat down and crunched out a perfect column in 15 minutes.

    While reading Lamontt’s chapters, it was almost as if she was speaking directly to me saying, “Look, Laura. A guy like your buddy in high school is one and a trillion. You can be a good writer with crappy drafts. Don’t worry. Just do it.” Lamontt’s message is definitely refreshing to hear as a student.

  10. The whole book is wonderful and well worth the investment of a couple bucks at Half Price Books or wherever you get your books from. It really is a relief to hear writing is hard! Plus, Lamott makes me laugh every time. It’s a challenge and a relief at the same time to type or write stuff that I’m not confident in or sure about, because I’m thinking to myself, ‘I know I won’t keep this, why would I write it?’ But then having that shitty first draft is such a relief because it’s content, if nothing else, that can be shaped and chipped away at. That’s better than nothing.

    I have another quotation! Madeline L’Engle is another great inspiration to me, and she said, “I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three
    things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write.”

    A lot of my favorite writers have talked about the importance of writing everyday, but it’s something that ends up at the bottom of my exhausting to-do list lately.

  11. Heather Shoning

    I enjoyed the Lamott chapters and did put the book on my Christmas list. I never hold my breath on that, though. Anyway, I like to do the shitty first draft myself. I don’t call it a first draft. Much to my husband’s delight, I call it taking a dump. (I think I just shared too much information.) I have to get everything down on the page to make sure I don’t miss anything. Then I go back and attempt to turn it in to a draft and proceed from there.

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