One book and one writer's voice has stayed with me for almost twenty years. I often hear Anne Lamott's words from her book, Bird by Bird, when I'm struggling to write. I first read it in an undergraduate creative writing class in the 1990s. I went on to use this book when I taught my own creative writing class. No matter how many other books on writing I read, no other has stayed with me on such a daily and personal basis.
For my day job I write advertising copy. And when I'm writing at work, I often use Lamott's advice about permitting myself to write a "Shitty First Draft." I find that no matter what I've set out to write, whether it be something personal, something professional, something academic or something creative ... I have to deal with confronting the blank page and the feelings that are associated with it. Feelings such as:
Obsessive compulsiveness towards laundry.
And then finally, sometimes, a sentence. One horrifically awful, no-good, very bad sentence.
That one measly, completely embarrassing sentence that I managed to eek out after completing every other task in my domestile, is thanks to Anne Lamott. In her book, she says:
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 think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
Aside from fear of death, fear of NOT BEING PERFECT will keep you from putting anything on that beautiful blank page. My god, if you're going to muss it up, it had better be good, you might think.
Get that horse hockey out of your head. Just give in to the suckitude, dude. Resolve to write the most embarrassingly cliched, rushed, puked, pulled and cajoled sentence that ever hurled itself onto a page. And then resolve to write another. And another. Keep going until you have strings of perfectly vomitus prose splattered all over your pages like a two-day bender after a breakup with some major asshole who cheated on you that ended with you waking up with some improbably young person who appears to quite possibly still be in college.
Whatever you do, don't judge! Don't stop. Keep writing through the horrible mess of your no good very bad divorce. I mean draft. Yes, that's what we were talking about, right?
I kid. I joke. I make a little metaphor about writing and irresponsible sex with young strangers.
Like you haven't been there.
Well this is awkward.
Anyway, I digress. My point is, no one has to know about that misguided one night stand with the 20-something-year-old who perhaps proceeded to call you seven times a day for the next two weeks before everyone had Caller ID and so they had no idea that you knew they were calling seven times a day for two weeks. I mean, damn, friend, you must be gooooood.
My point is, no one has to know about the perfectly terrible writing you're doing on your laptop at midnight on a Monday. No one is going to see it. You're just breaking the ice. You're taking a big ugly pick axe to it because you can't swim unless you get wet. Or you can't get over someone unless you strip off your clothes and dive in bed with your first stranger.
Exactly. Consider this blog my shitty first draft. I'm just throwing it all out there and I'll save it as a "Draft" and it will never see the light of day in its present condition. Maybe. Unless it's funny. Then the kid stays in the picture.
Once I've given myself permission to write a completely shitty first draft, I then make the task before me as small as possible. If I'm at work, maybe I just tell myself I'll write down five headlines. Or I'll write one paragraph and no more. If I'm at home working on my book, maybe I'll just write the opening scene. Or write one conversation between two characters. Just some small task to accomplish in the midst of a much larger, and much more daunting, task-at-large.
Anne Lamott calls this technique the One-Inch Picture Frame:
I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.
This tiny frame is actually quite huge. Breaking down your writing assignment into something small and doable is a great way to break through the resistance. Your brain will balk at the insurmountable task of not only filling up one blank page but all the other blank pages that follow. But if you coax it with a teeny tiny wee little task that even a baby writer could accomplish ... then maybe your brain won't be so scared.
Maybe your fingers will tentatively tap out a small scene. Maybe the sun will rise on your character's front lawn. Maybe one character will finally tell another one to fuck off. Or maybe you'll write one tagline about cat food.
It's just a one-inch picture frame. Full of shitty first words. No one else has to see it. No one has to know you ever wrote such tripe. Or banged a stranger in a polyester suit whose young, hopeful eyes gleamed just a bit brighter one Saturday night under a disco ball and hell, maybe you just felt like dancing.
No one needs to know.
We've all had a shitty first draft and a one night stand. But we couldn't move forward without getting that messy business out of the way.