The Shitty First Draft and Social Media

I was surprised recently to visit the section of my local library about writing and writers to discover a book I had never seen there before. To make matters even more exciting it was an author I had heard Merlin Mann refer to in a speech he gave with John Gruber. So for the last week or so I’ve been eagerly reading Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. What a beautiful book this is! I was impressed by the rich sense of humour Anne imbues into everything – even her deeply held religious beliefs. I was impressed by how much practical instruction she offered on the subject of writing. What really surprised me though was how thoroughly the book lives up to its title; I’m learning at least as much about life as I am learning about writing, perhaps more.

One of the central concepts to Anne’s teachings on writing is something she calls the ‘Shitty First Draft.’ She explains:

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. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.

Infact the concept is not that far removed from the Morning Pages described in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. The idea is to suspend your judgment and just get something – anything – down on the page. You can edit something later, you can’t edit nothing. This is a discipline I am still working on developing. For the most part the things I’ve written have been short stories, articles and blog posts and traditionally I would edit while I write. Attempting much larger projects has seemed extraordinarily daunting to me. Last November I attempted NaNoWriMo (The National Novel Writing Month) and after writing two completely unrelated thousand word pieces I was ready to assume the fetal position on the floor. I quickly abandoned NaNoWriMo.

I’m hoping that with my current project I’ll be able to chunk the work into pieces and focus on smaller parts without becoming overwhelmed by the scale of the whole. It’s just a mind trick, but somehow working on 1000-2000 words per day seems more acheviable to me than 50,000 in a month. I’m going to suspend my disbelief and just write. I will figure out how they all fit together later. That is what editing is for.

The other tenet of both the Shitty First Draft and the Morning Pages is that the work is not seen by anybody but the author.

I have been a great champion of social media – Twitter, especially – so it surprises me a little to admit that I am now walking away from it. For me the temptation to share ideas with the masses via social media (before they are fully formed) is too great. I am working to create a little sanctuary where I can explore any creative whim I possess without opening myself up to a lot of criticism. Also on a more personal note I have come to realise the part Twitter plays in my procrastination. I spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself on Twitter and soliciting sympathy from others. So for the time being I am taking a break from it.

Here’s to many, many Shitty First Drafts!

6 comments… add one
  • Cori

    I will miss you. 🙁 Please continue to tweet your blog posts. xo

  • Carrie M.

    Very eloquent piece, John. I’ll miss your “Tweets”, actually. I never judged them, just enjoyed them.

  • Wow, I’m so surprised you’re off Twitter. I love what you said about trying to say something in fewer words rather than more (of course you said it more elegantly than I just did). It made me think of Tweets as their own little art form. Good luck w/the shitty first drafts. You are so lucky to be reading Bird by Bird for the first time!

  • It’s funny, I was just thinking today that I too might break up with Twitter. It really does nothing for me… besides waste time. I think it’s too easy to get caught up in the madness of it all. I am over it.

    I am glad to see you want to give writing a heartier go. You have a strong voice, let it speak. My one tip (because I’ve read books on writing too ;)) is to turn off your inner editor. Just write. You can do it.
    Good luck to you John.

  • The final word, I suppose, is that I am addicted to Twitter. I do take breaks from Twitter from time to time depending on my workload and mood. But if I spend too much time away from it, I do miss it.

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