“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.”
– Shitty First Drafts, Bird by Bird
Good God. Anne Lamott speaks Truth. I may as well throw in the towel, cozy up on the couch and Netflix my life away because all the good things to say have already been said.
Alright, that’s not true, much to Salem’s chagrin. She would, no doubt, appreciate less screen time in our lives. When we write – yes, we – she sits and stares at my tablet, confused by all the letters that dance in front of her, occasionally pawing at the keyboard so an extra couple of // or 0-auosdfj get added to whatever I’m going on about in the moment. She’s a loyal and tireless contributor who should at least be credited while our work takes away from her other priorities.
In her world, my attention would be much better spent throwing her tennis ball, hooking her leash, filling her bowl, or finding the bone she invariably buried under the rug, entertainment center, or (most recently) living room radiator. She’s really got this make puppy parents crazy over finding essential possessions thing down. Is this what finding a pacifier is like for parents of toddlers?! God help us when that day comes.
At any rate, neither Anne’s prowess nor Salem’s pouting ultimately prevent writing from happening. Best actually to keep writing through them. Which usually means what I write isn’t perfect.
No matter, this is as much about process as it is product.
It’s true that Anne writes like a goddess. If you care about writing, or reading, or women, or anything, please lend some of your attention to her work. Her voice is so needed. It’s so masterfully real, despite and perhaps because of how much writing is hard, and however shitty first drafts are (admit it).
One of the best teachers I’ve ever had once leveled me with feedback that I now draw so much strength from. “Ryan,” he said, “you are a great writer. But you are not a one draft writer.” NOT A ONE DRAFT WRITER?! Surely no, I had to be! I was smart, I read all the greats, people told me I had talent, so he had to be wrong!
Yeahhh, high school was not my best look. But is it anyone’s, really? Isn’t high school just another version of a shitty first draft? It gets some of the important stuff down, but usually late in the game and after having confused at least one critical point.
After years of other caring people sharing revisions amidst my stubborn, navel-gazing nonsense, I eventually learned to correct more than my writing. Thank god for that and the people who helped me get there.
Many of these people still write better than me. And I’m grateful for it. There’s something to reach for other than myself – though getting back to a truer version of me has also been a positive thing.
My writing is like my life. I write about what I know about. And now I know it’s ok to be someone who writes in more than one sitting. In fact, it’s probably a great thing. There’s more time to think, to simmer, to figure out – between all the words – what I’m really trying to say. And, to another of Anne’s salient points, what matters most is usually buried after “the first five and a half pages.”
All of the feels.
Hold on, have to collect myself.
If and when you read Bird by Bird, please pause to understand the gravity of what Anne’s speaking to. Lessons like how it’s not always important to get things right the first time (or ever – if the standards aren’t your own). This is not a test. There are no grades. And if you are privileged to be recognized for the life you lead or the work you do, great. But meanwhile, you won’t get there if you don’t get started.
So go, get out there and live, write, fish, travel the world, whatever you want. It’s probably going to be sloppy. You’re going to course correct a thousand times over. You’re going to fall down and make mistakes. But if you’re lucky, your editor, your friends, your family … and ideally, you … will be there to walk through whatever revisions are necessary.
You’re still here? I said to go! While you’re here, you may as well grab a pen and some extra paper for the road. Just remember, if life gets “really, really shitty,” you can always fix it later. And if ever you need to start over, there’s another blank page waiting for you to start completely new drafts on.
By the way, Mr. K., I’m sorry. I should have listened earlier. That first draft was a mess and totally deserved every bit of red ink you dedicated to it. What can I say? I’m a work in progress. But you’d be proud of how far I’ve come.
Ryan Vale McGonigle
P.S. My husband is the best editor. He laughs at all my corny jokes and gets all the hidden meanings. But he also tells me when I’m full of shit. And he’s never too sleepy to remind me that even though his writing takes only one draft (he’s one of those), mine is free to take many more.
P.P.S. Naturally, any typos or errors you see here are as much his as mine, although we’d both rather blame Salem.