The Mess and the Miracle of the Shitty First Draft

I started journaling in seventh grade. Not because I had grand ideas about writers keeping a collection of thoughts on which to write their memoirs or anything. But because my English teacher, Mrs. Deeds, made us. 

I couldn’t even bother to act put out about it. either. 

I had about a zillion feelings ping ponging off each other constantly, thoughts about friendship wars and who liked who and who might call me or invite me to their sleep over. Every little in my world felt momentous, and that notebook paper clipped inside a pronged, two-pocket folder absorbed my tidal wave of emotion. Every day.

Strictly speaking, we were supposed to journal on the prompt written on the board (in chalk, no whiteboards yet), which I did most of the time. But, just like now, I could start writing in one direction, take a hard left & end up in the murk of my feelings. 

I write to sort myself out. 

Lined notebook paper (or a blank computer screen) tends to be less judgy than actual people who have real feelings. People who might want me to be reasonable. And the first story that I tell myself about whatever is going on in my life, the story that ends up on the page during that shitty first draft, is never reasonable. It’s ragey. Or pouty. Or full self-righteousness indignation.

But it’s never actually helpful to anyone. Except me.

Things get better with revision. Not just my writing. Me. 

I splay all that goo on the page, rapid fire, no questions asked. 

Then I have to look at it. And think about it. Dig around to find out what’s behind those big squishy feelings. I have to stop being lazy (intellectually and emotionally) and work with what I’ve got. 

In seventh grade, though, I didn’t know about shitty first drafts or how far the story I told myself could be from actual honest-to-god reality. 

I just knew that when I wrote about what I wanted my life to look like when I was twenty-five (which seemed so old back in 1987), I ended up thinking about family structures, economics, patriarchy, and gender roles–although I had access to zero of those words back then. Sitting down to “think” never got me much of anywhere,  but put a pen in my hand with only 10 minutes to write–then I could find my balance again. More or less. It was seventh grade after all. It’s in the job description to be slightly unmoored. 

Sometimes I’ll write for a long time, only to realize I’ve got approximately nothing to say.  Nothing of import anyway. That’s okay. It’s a relief, and a laudable goal in it’s own right, just to spew that clutter out of my brain and onto the page. It makes room for other things. Like thinking. And being a decent human.  

Other times, I start out writing about an argument with my kid or my frustration with something bobbing about the world, and I’ll realize (after that first draft) that I’m being a self-righteous little shit. It’s humbling, sure. But so much better than working that out on other people. Especially because, most times, I didn’t realize there was anything to work out in the first place.

I’m grateful for a seventh grade English teacher that understood the power of putting words on a page. And that the first draft doesn’t have to look anything like what I choose to put out in the world. 

There’s zero shame in a shitty first draft. It’s where you go from there that counts.

This post leans heavily on ideas from Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird & Brene Brown’s Rising Strong. Highly recommend them both. 

2 thoughts on “The Mess and the Miracle of the Shitty First Draft

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  1. This should be read out loud on the first day in every English class. Thank you Kendra! I’m need to print it and hang it up in the places where I write to be reminded every day!

    1. Hey, thanks! You are a stellar writer. Don’t lose sight of that. (apparently, today, I am a motivational speaker, as well)

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