No more suffering in front of the blank page while fighting the urge to run away.
A blank page is a beginning. An exhilarating opening of possibilities. But we’re terrified of it. Terrified of screwing (it) up.
Perfectionism. Fear of failure. Of having to start again. To feel the strength, so hard gathered, abandon you.
So we stare at it.
A blank page staying desperately blank is the result of trying too hard.
The truth is: getting something good right away never happens.
When you accept this reality and dare to take a peek at the page again, it finally emerges as the invitation that it is. An invitation to pour everything that needs to, in order to reveal what needs to be revealed in turn.
It’s like my soup bowls: to get to see the drawing hidden at the bottom, you must first drink the soup, spoon after spoon.
To find your diamond, the thing you’re dying to say without knowing what it is, you must first empty the bowl.
Filling the blank page and giving birth to your first draft is what it’s all about. It’s taking it all out to see what shines amidst the trash.
I never face the blank page. I always find something to write. And when it gets harder, I read those quotes again.
1 — Anne Lamott gives you permission to write the worst first draft ever
“Get it all down. Let it pour out of you and onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.” — Anne Lamott
I love this one. It rings in my ears like the ultimate permission to be as bad as I need to.
To get anywhere, you have to get it all out first. Your only role, at this stage, is to write everything down. Without leaving anything out. Even the things you bet you will remove later.
Empty everything. Everything. Without censorship.
2 — Building sandcastles with Shannon Hale
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box, so that later, I can build castles.” — Shannon Hale
This one resonates with the first. They all resonate together, because writing a first draft is nothing more than allowing yourself to reach inside and get it all out on paper or screen.
Writing is like sculpting. You start by throwing all the raw material on the table. Only then can you do something with it. Never before.
3 — Terry Pratchett sums it up
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” ―Terry Pratchett
The first draft is required to transform this floating idea that you have into something tangible. Real. Workable. Sharable.
When this is done, the mind is empty. It can now observe the thing from further away, therefore seeing it more clearly.
Only then can the second step begin. Never before.
4 — John Gardner on gaining clarity
“Fiction, like sculpture or painting, begins with a rough sketch. One gets down the characters and their behavior any way one can, knowing the sentences will have to be revised, knowing the characters’ actions may change. It makes no difference how clumsy the sketch is — sketches are not supposed to be polished and elegant. All that matters is that, going over and over the sketch as if one had all eternity for finishing one’s story, one improves now this sentence, now that, noticing what changes the new sentences urge, and in the process one gets the characters and their behavior clearer in one’s head, gradually discovering deeper and deeper implications of the characters’ problems and hopes.” — John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist
I like this analogy with a sketch. A sketch is what it means: you have a vague idea in your head and you scribble it down as you can and as it comes on a torn piece of paper.
It seems like nothing, but it’s a fabulous basis. The only one possible. From there, you can improve.
When you’ve got a design you’re happy with, you can add the colors.
5 — Honesty, by Hemingway
“The first draft of anything is sh*t.” — Ernest Hemingway
All is said.
6 — The great John Green sucks too
“I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90 percent of my first drafts… so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90 percent chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating.” — John Green
I was surprised to read this by an author like John Green. Best-selling authors too write first drafts that suck.
If even John Green goes through this harsh process, then you and I will too. That’s great: that means you can write absolutely anything you want. It has no consequences.
And that’s the key to finding the diamond, see next quote.
7 — Recognizing, extracting, then polishing a story Darcy Pattison style
“Most of all, I remember: the purpose of the first draft is to figure out what story you are telling. The purpose of all other drafts is to figure out the most dramatic way to tell that story. I remember that I am figuring out what story I am telling. So–I allow myself to, well, to figure it out. Slowly, painfully–the story is starting to shine through. It will be there within this draft, waiting for me to recognize it and polish it. I am just trusting the process and writing a really lousy first draft.” — Darcy Pattison
Your first draft is an exploration.
While writing many, many words, I realized one thing: often, we feel like writing, we feel that we have something to get out of ourselves, but we don’t know exactly what. Sometimes even not at all.
This is exactly what Darcy Pattison describes.
Write what comes to you, without worrying about the rest. Your first draft is a field of exploration with no rules or boundaries. In the middle of it hides a diamond.
8 — A rule of thumb by James N. Frey
“Simply refuse to look at anything you have written until the last page is done. Period.” — James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel
I follow this rule for my shortest texts. Blog posts. Articles when I was a freelance writer. I go from point A to point Z, following as quickly as possible the thread that runs in my head and won’t wait for me.
Only after do I read it again. Often the next day.
I find it tricky when it comes to long-form, as I’m currently doing with my first book. When I get to work in the morning, I feel the need to reread what I wrote the day before just to get back into the story. To get the ball rolling again.
What makes me not want to throw it all out the window is probably my mindset: I don’t invite my internal editor to the process. I just refresh my memory.
Sometimes it takes writing 10,000 bad words for the good ones to start popping out. It’s like having a traffic jam in your mind.
When I write a first draft, I throw everything I can at the blank page. Whatever comes to me, almost without thinking. It’s by throwing words around that I see what I want to say emerge.
It takes a few thousand more words before I can see clearly enough for a structure to emerge.
Then I write down everything I have to write, as quickly as possible, to try not to leave anything out. When it’s all there, I take a deep breath then sink my hands back into the mud.
Writing a first draft is not as bad as it sounds.