Fighting the Resistance 1: The first draft is garbage

I think every college student has that class. It’s the class that alters your perspective, teaches a life-long lesson or shapes how you’ll think about a subject forever. Perhaps it’s philosophy, the arts, history, biology (gag…but it’s possible) or as it is for a lot of Christian university students, religion/theology.

I think the most widespread that class is literature, as it was for me. This is probably because literature is generally the worst-taught class at the high school level. Ask any high school senior about their English class, and most of them will roll their eyes and complain about how boring reading “Hamlet” aloud was. I think there are plenty of reasons for bad English class experiences in high school, but that is for another post.

I took Intro to Literature my freshman year of college, and it completely reshaped my appreciation for literature — poetry in particular. I entered college with a vague goal of someday being a writer, and if you’d asked me then what I wanted to do when I grew up, I probably would have feigned humility and said, “a novelist.” As I’ve written on this blog in the past, I had no idea what that meant, or what it would take. And if I had, I would never have intentionally stuck that label on myself.

The prof was an actual writer, who had actually published an actual novel. He knew his stuff, and he taught the material with such passion that you couldn’t help but participate in his interest, at least as long as the class lasted. While most students probably forgot about the class as soon as it was over, they didn’t want to be writers like I did.

So I went up to him once after class and told him I was interested in being a writer. “What kind of things do you like to write?” he asked me. The truth was (and this is related to another big lesson we’ll get to tomorrow) I had never really written anything. A few short stories here and there — mostly about the world ending or whatever — but not much. So I said something like, “I don’t know; whatever I want to,” which was actually not a bad answer.

Like all good teachers, he took an interest in me and we met a few times over the next year to discuss writing life. He said something to me then that is still my lesson number one: “the first draft is garbage.” The book he suggested to me (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which I likewise suggest to you) put it in more concrete, crass terms — “sh***y first drafts. The lesson is crucial.

There are no writers who produce their best material in a rough draft. None. I promise you. Every writer needs to rework their pieces; every great writer is a great rewriter. We all make mistakes, we all need to clarify. As Donald Murray points out in his book The Craft of Revision (another excellent resource), the first draft is almost always the worst one. It can only get better from there.

I think you’ll also find a robust freedom in allowing yourself a mulligan, or two or three. It permits you to write anything you want in the first draft…provided you change the bad stuff later. And as we’ve said, most of it will be bad. Terrible in fact. But that’s okay. Lamott says that if you want to have a character say, “Well so what Mr. Poopy Pants,” by all means have the character say it. Just make sure you rewrite it later. But of course, that’s the whole point in the first place.

Write something. Just get it on paper. Then take your imperfect clay sculpture, smash it on the table and start over. Write with your heart; rewrite with your head (and please…use both). Get used to being your own editor, and you’ll find your writing will improve quickly.

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2 thoughts on “Fighting the Resistance 1: The first draft is garbage

  1. Spot on, man. People who are thinking about pursuing a career in writing should read this to make sure they know what they’re getting into.

    I’m curious … which prof was it?

  2. Thanks Jonathan. Yes–it’s a important lesson. the prof was Belliveau, second semester of my freshman year. He’s since tweaked the class a bit, but I’m sure it’s equally awesome. Somebody a few years ago made a blog of some of Belliveau’s best in-class comments, but I don’t remember where it is. If I find it, I’ll post it.

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