The Root of Non-Writing

The blank page sucks. I’m certainly familiar with how intimidating it can be, and I’d bet a cup of coffee you are too.

To help get over that intimidation, Anne Lamott advises we give ourselves permission to write a very, very horrible first draft:

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. [...]

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.

But why? Why fight the blank page by just getting anything down even though you know that when you’re done you’ll be left with something so ugly and embarrassing that it doesn’t even deserve to be used as fuel to light the charcoal for your grill?

Well, a crappy first draft is important because: momentum.

I’m currently reading through Frank Chimero’s excellent book, The Shape of Design. In chapter 3, “Improvisation and Limitations”, Frank also discusses the difficulty of getting started with a creative work.

He says you’ve got to build momentum when starting from zero. Even writing a crappy first draft still means you’ve got to push-start a car that’s not currently moving.

Frank writes:

I find the best way to gain momentum is to think of the worst possible way to tackle the project. Quality may be elusive, but stupidity is always easily accessible; absurdity is fine, maybe even desired. [...]

Momentum is the most important aspect of starting, and rejecting and editing too soon as a tendency to stifle that movement.

To pull the curtain back for a second, one of the monsters I face as a writer is the fear that if the words don’t come out just right the first time around then there will be no hope for them after that. I wait to get started because I assume that if I don’t write something magical and clever as I’m typing it for the first time then I certainly won’t be able to improve upon it in the editing and re-writing process.

Of course, that’s a load of crud. In On Writing, Stephen King wrote that he’s convinced fear is at the root of most bad writing. Fear is also at the root of most non-writing.

The truth of the matter in my situation is that if I can just type out something — anything — then I’m far more likely to be able to take that crappy first draft and mold it and steer it in the direction I want until it’s something presentable. If I wait, I may never actually start.

Moreover, it’s usually in the molding and the steering that greatness shows up. Because: momentum!

Seth Godin:

[T]he only path to amazing runs directly through not-yet-amazing. But not-yet-amazing is a great place to start, because that’s where you are. For now.

There’s a big difference between not settling and not starting.

The best ideas and creative works love to build on their previous iterations far more than they love to spring out of nowhere (unless that nowhere is the shower). Therefore it’s often when I am going back over my first or second or third drafts that I actually come up with the magical or clever turn of phrase I was so hoping would pop out the first time around. It was there all along, just not bubbling on the surface.

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