Perfectionism and Shitty First Drafts

Typebars in a 1920s typewriter

Draft Dodging
By Elizabeth Cutright

Yesterday I wrote about the paralyzing power of perfectionism.  And whether we like it or not, the most successful weapon against perfectionism is imperfection – we must face our fear of looking stupid or inept or untalented by just giving in to our weaknesses.  In that way, we will uncover hidden strengths and untapped wells of creativity.

But we must do it one step at a time. E.L. Doctorow once said that, “writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  That’s why certain “tricks of the trade” – like morning pages and short assignments – can be so effective.  If you circumvent the doubts and derail the taskmaster, you can get to the heart of what you’re trying to say.

“It is one of the ironies of the writing life that much of what we write in passing, casually, later seems to hold up just as well as the pieces we slaved over, convinced of their worth and dignity,” says Julia Cameron in The Right to Write.  Anne Lamott calls it the power of the shitty first draft.

“Very few writers know what they are doing until they’ve done it,” explains Lamott.  “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.”

I have to tell you.  I hate shitty first drafts. Ironically –  considering my day job – part of my reticence involves my ambivalence about editing.  Don’t get me wrong…I love editing.  I could edit all day and into the night.  I’d love to edit your memo…your post-it note…your angry letter to the editor.  Give me a couple of hours, and I can turn your short missive into a detailed piece of literature.

And that’s the problem: I am enraptured by the idea of tweaking and reinforcing and reinventing.  I love how adjusting one word here, crossing out one line there or moving that paragraph over to the beginning can change the whole tone and focus of a piece of writing.

It’s one thing to unleash this enthusiasm on someone else’s project – after all, they call the shots and have the power to tell me to back off – quite another to put all that editorial energy into my own work.  Sometimes my shitty first drafts will come out of the process as nothing more than an unreadable mixture of red-penned cross outs, arrows and additional paragraphs jotted out in long hand.  I love it, but the real work comes when it’s time to put that remodeled effort up on to the page (or, in this case, the computer screen).  It’s a tedious, miniscule-step by miniscule-step process that’s not only backbreaking, but a creativity killer.

And part of the reason for that is, of course, the demon of perfectionism.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…” says Anne Lamott in Bird By Bird.  I like the image of perfectionism as the thought police – the brown shirt that marches you around and micromanages your every move.  Writing a first draft and then it ripping apart is fun, but then in comes the enforcer; demanding that your incorporate all those changes and turn your mishmash of ideas into something brilliant.

“We must be small enough, humble enough, to always be a beginner, an observer,” advises Julia Cameron in The Right to Write.  It’s a tricky business, allowing yourself to be malleable to creativity while holding fast against perfectionism.  In the end, I’ve found that the best way to strike a balance is to focus on simplicity.

Simplicity is a practice I try to incorporate in all areas of my life.  As a writer and a natural storyteller, I’m drawn to the drama and complexity of life, so at times simplicity can be a challenge.  But sometimes you need to take out that red pen and eliminate all the chaff, all the flotsam and jetsam of the day-to-day, and conjure up clear, perfectly distilled inspiration

But I have to admit – it’s a constant battle, this tug-and-pull between the little details and the big ideas.

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