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TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 14

Complete your baggy
first draft
You sit staring at the page or the screen and, finally, an idea comes. You begin to write tentatively, then with more confidence. The words start to flow, and the pages take shape. Then you stop and read what you’ve written, and you want to throw up.
Congratulations! You’ve done exactly what you’re supposed to do. You have written a big fat baggy first draft.
Inexperienced writers think that writing is like laying an egg. You begin by gathering your thoughts, fashioning a nice warm nest. You sit in it, gestate, strain—and voilà, you produce a perfect, shining, egg-shaped piece of writing, a gift to the world all set to go.
But that is the furthest thing from what writing really is: a process, a journey, endless stumbling along a confusing trail. Beginning somewhere, figuring out where you want to go, trying to get there, trying again this way, trying again that way, finishing somewhere and then starting again. This messy, frustrating process is what writing really looks like.
A first draft can and indeed should be awful. In her diary, Virginia Woolf spoke of her first draft as a chaotic handbag into which she threw everything. Try not to edit or stop as your first draft emerges. Let the ideas, thoughts, and scenes pour out until that bag is bulging. You are writing a big fat baggy first draft, wearing your writer’s hat (throw all the ideas in) not your editor’s hat (weed many ideas out). You can’t work with a few tentative lines; you need pages filled with words. When you stop and read your draft, it’ll be too terse and constrained or, more likely, way too rambling and long. It’ll be full of bad grammar, digressions, and clichés. “All over the place!” you’ll say. “So dull. Abysmal.”
Forgive yourself. Because now the next part of the work begins: editing, shaping, and improving the baggy first draft.
My first drafts are turgid, unfocused, and lacklustre; they make me think I’m a lousy writer. But I am, I like to think, a good REwriter. Once the first draft is down, I work it over and over into something better—as I’m doing right now, over and over, in this book for you. Some believe getting the first draft out is the hardest part of writing; others love the initial burst of creation and hate the fiddly editing that comes next. Use different techniques to help launch yourself—perhaps drawing or creating mind maps, talking out loud, or making lists and pinning them on the wall.
Writing is more like working with clay than we realize at first; when you’ve got a lump of raw material, you have to figure out what to do with it, what its final shape should be, and how to get it there. But first, unlike potters or sculptors, you have to produce the raw material yourself, unearthing it onto the page from your own memory, heart, gut, mind, soul.
Delve into your topic, let yourself go, and write a clumsy, bulky, meandering, lousy first draft. Keep writing, keep your writer’s hat on, and keep putting in what comes to you until you have enough content to really rewrite. Only then should you put on your editor’s hat and begin to redraft, polish, and cut.
When I used to write more at The New Yorker, there were two or three Polish cleaning women who came in late at night, and I was always afraid that they would find my early drafts and read them to each other, howling with laughter, slapping their brooms against the desks like hockey players do: Ha! He calls himself a writer!
calvin trillin

The first words down are like a block of marble for the sculptor: raw material. The content, or much of it, comes blurting out in the first draft. (Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that this appalling stuff sounds as if it were written by someone named Philboyd Studge.)
junot diaz
Let it pour out. Surrender to the story. Write too much so you have something to work with. Don’t worry about who will see it; write for yourself. Don’t hold back and be discreet. Don’t cut yourself off from the story.
wayson choy



2 Responses to “TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 14”

  1. theresa says:

    This is so good.

  2. beth says:

    Thank you! Not that you need to read a single word of it.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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